World Premiere – Slaying the Dragon at Center City Opera Theater
19 June 2012, Philadelphia, US
Scenes from 'Slaying the Dragon'
(Photos: Center City Opera Theater)
Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
Many recent American operas have been fictionalised accounts based on true stories, which if they hadn’t actually happened would have been impossible to believe. Slaying the Dragon is one of them. Dealing with hate and violence, redemption and forgiveness, it also shows how forgiving is not always possible and how evil is not always apparent.
The story revolves around Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, who in 1991 discovered that a Jewish family (the Weissers) had moved into town and began his usual virulent anti-Semitic and racist threats – similar to those he had spewed on other minorities. But the Weissers, rather than cowering or fighting back, turned the other cheek. As Trapp succumbed to the ravages of diabetes and was spurned by the KKK, the Weissers offered to take care of him. So moved was Trapp by their kindness, he renounced his virulent racial and anti-Semitic tirades and converted to Judaism. Based on the book, Not By the Sword, Ellen Frankel’s libretto is a fictionalized account of Larry Trapp’s transformation, known in the opera as Jerry Krieg.
Set against a backdrop evoking the ruins of the World Trade Center after the September 11th bombings, symbolizing the world’s destructive forces, the opera offered some chilling scenes. For example, after Krieg’s induction as the Grand Dragon, when the attendees pulled off their white pointed hoods to reveal normal mums talking on cell phones to their kids; or when a Holocaust surivivor refused to offer forgiveness to the newly-converted Krieg, instead showed him her arm etched with concentration camp numbers. But there were also long stretches of banality and redundancy like the repetitiveness of the chorus, and a gospel preacher leading a reluctant audience in a sing-along that seemed endless. The problem was with the scenes that jumped from gut-wrenching revulsion and shocking obscene rawness of Krieg and his Skinhead henchmen to the preachy goodness of the Jewish family, without delving into why each character had such a temperament. The explanation of Krieg’s hate, that he was abused as a child, came across as too simplistic for such a profoundly moving conversion: as Act I ended he was poised to kill the Jewish family, yet by the end of act two, he had renounced all hate groups, apologized to everyone he had offended, and had converted to Judaism, which was, very effectively juxtaposed with the induction of a new Grand Dragon.
The music sounded like an aural rendition of a patchwork quilt with each pattern a different size, shape, texture and colour, with the array of musical styles echoing the diversity of characters: from Jerry Krieg’s Grand Dragon to the newly arrived Jewish couple, Michael and Vera Goodman; from the skinheads Viper and Nighthawk to the Reverend Ava Gray; from the Asian Giet Long to the Holocaust survivor, Ester Zikorn. The melodic score at times sounded more like a movie soundtrack, especially with the abundant spoken dialogue and the unusual fusion of sounds – including gospel songs distilled from Hebrew melodies. Nevertheless, despite its lyrical character, the music was very much 21st century, sung by a well rehearsed cast and crisply conducted by maestro Andrew Kurtz.