Chappaquiddick with a High C

Black Water resuscitates Mary Jo Kopechne's story.

Now and then a cry goes up about opera's relevance—the notion that the art form can survive only if it takes on contemporary issues and engages its audience with subject matter that matters. And Exhibit A is invariably Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Age of Enlightenment, class conflict, yada yada. Yet almost no standard-rep opera aside from Figaro was set in the time it was written; if they address contemporary issues, they do so through metaphor (Verdi's heroic historical operas as thinly-veiled cries for Italian unification and independence), or they explore timeless aspects of the human condition (love, revenge, all that). The rest is escapism. I mention this just to give props where due: modern-day opera composers' welcome interest in contemporary subjects is much more an innovation than a continuation of a tradition. Off-Center Opera presents a particularly daring example of this trend: John Duffy's Black Water, with a libretto adapted by Joyce Carol Oates from her novella, is an opera-a-clef on the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, taking that tragedy as a starting point for a pointed look at American politics and society. (Pictured: Kim Giordano as "Kelly" and John Bumbalo as The Senator.)

 
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