New York Times, June 12, 2000

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A tribute to the voice (not your usual opera)

Ann Powers

A new patch on the border between art music and pop is being cultivated, and Elvis Costello is its chief gardener. Even when he was an angry young punk, Mr. Costello wrote unusually intricate melodies and lyrics. Now, at 45, he seeds his compositions with overt jazz and classical influences and uses his popularity to promote the work of equally ambitious hybridizers.

Welcome to the Voice, a contemporary opera composed by Steve Nieve and performed by Mr. Costello and others on Friday night at Town Hall, raised the thought that Mr. Costello hadn't found this artistic borderland on his own. Mr. Nieve has been Mr. Costello's pianist and arranger for much of his career. After his fruitful liaison with Burt Bacharach, Mr. Costello reunited with Mr. Nieve for a sweetly nostalgic retrospective tour last year. Those shows made reference to the work performed on Friday, but only hinted at the confident step into the spotlight Mr. Nieve has now taken.

Although Mr. Costello sang the heroic part in this theater piece, he was not its star. That role belonged to the music itself, more a meditative song cycle than a traditional opera. Mr. Nieve, leading the Brodsky String Quartet and the saxophonist Ned Rothenberg from behind his piano, used laudable restraint as both composer and conductor. His themes disclosed themselves gently, without the obviousness that sometimes afflicts serious work by pop-based writers.

Befitting celebration of the voice, this one featured plenty of singers. Its libretto, written by Muriel Teodori, followed the overwhelming obsession of the Drunkman, played by Mr. Costello, with an opera singer he had heard on a recording.

Interlopers tried to turn the Drunkman away from his muse. The Workman, played with characteristic self-effacement by Ron Sexsmith, extolled gainful employment. Three Ghosts of Opera, sung by the classically trained Elsa Higby, Alexandra Picard and Heather Gilles, lured the Drunkman toward a suitably operatic death. He resisted and was rewarded by an encounter with his singing idol, played by Julie Leibowitch. The Chief of Police (John Flansburgh), then tried to arrest the Drunkman for loitering, spiritually, in the halls of Art. But love conquered all, no one stuck herself with a dagger, and all joined the rousing final chorus.

This simple plot worked best when kept in the background. Friday's performance hit its stride when individual singers offered meditations on the lure of the voice. All were in fine form, with Mr. Sexsmith using the angelic tenor that makes his own albums so wonderful, and Mr. Flansburgh screeching with the comic flair he employs in the band They Might Be Giants. The ghosts fulfilled their roles as figments of the familiar heroines Norma, Butterfly and Carmen, and Ms. Leibowitch, though constricted at first, lent an ingenue's freshness to her part.

The night's one impossible role belonged to the dancer Yarmo, who had to fill in the work's many balletic passages alone. He worked very hard, and was graceful, but his calisthenic moves sometimes distracted. In a fully staged version, one presumes, more dancers would enhance the story, although a Robert Wilson-style approach using lights and scrims might also well serve the glimmering score.

Neither opera nor jazz, Welcome to the Voice found its own ground, one that will be enjoyed by fans of the sophisticated songbook Mr. Nieve and Mr. Costello have written. This work took their style into a more elaborate structure, doing its part to break down generic divides further.

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New York Times, June 12, 2000

Ann Powers reviews the performance of Steve Nieve's Welcome To The Voice, Friday, June 9, 2000, Town Hall, New York, NY.


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