BOP’s ‘The Medium’ brings user-friendly opera to Brown

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Though Brown students might pride themselves on being a cultured, educated bunch, you probably won’t find an abundance of opera in their iTunes collections. So what better way to start an opera company here than with a production about venturing into the unknown? For this reason alone, “The Medium,” a play about a fraudulent psychic who accidentally encounters the supernatural, was an excellent choice for Brown Opera Production’s inaugural show, performed this weekend in Alumnae Hall.

At the beginning of the play, the “psychic” Baba (Christie Gibson ’06) conducts a séance with three grieving parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau (Michael Hadley ’06 and Clara Schuhmacher ’06) and Mrs. Nolan (Samantha Delson ’06). She is aided in her nefarious doings by her daughter Monica (Sonia Nayak ’08) and mute adopted son Toby (Bochay Drum ’09), who are forced to rattle furniture and provide ghostly responses to the parents’ inquiries. Though perfectly content with swindling these unfortunate souls, Baba becomes uncomfortable after she feels a cold hand on her neck. When no one confesses to touching her, she calls off the charade and orders the parents out of her house. Blaming the unresponsive Toby for the incident, Baba then begins her slow descent into drunken madness.

BOP deserves kudos for making the art of opera so accessible, particularly for those unfamiliar with the genre. By selecting an English opera, including a screen with written lyrics and sticking to the show’s hour-long run time, the typical audience member’s comprehension and enjoyment of the production were greatly enhanced.

Musically, the show was in very capable hands. The actors exhibited immense control when employing their classically trained voices, and they enjoyed a strong backing from the 12-piece orchestra seated in the pit. Vocally, there were very few weak moments, and the actors nimbly achieved even the highest of notes.

From a traditional theater standpoint, the performers seemed to be doing their best with the highly stylized text (it was opera, after all). Even so, particularly in the show’s first half, honest acting occasionally took a back seat to episodes of pure song. These moments were relatively rare, however.

The actors shined brightest when dwelling on their individual tragedies. Schuhmacher, in particular, managed to capture the audience’s sympathy when she movingly described the tragic death of her son, who drowned in a shallow fountain while under her care. Nayak also deserves praise for doing justice to the kind, imaginative character of Monica. The interactions between Nayak and Drum, who played Toby, were always poignant. The scene during which their love culminates in a brief kiss stands out as one of the show’s best.

In the end, the play is defined by its haunting, unfulfilled relationships. The parents are unable to let go of their children, even after Baba explains her sham to them, and they continue to insist on one last séance as she ushers them out the door. As for Monica and Toby, their love is cut short by Baba’s actions. Convinced that she is killing the ghost who touched her, Baba shoots Toby as he hides in a puppet theater in their living room.

Overall, “The Medium” was a competent and stirring effort. It left one with the notion that we are all puppets in one way or another and that, more often than not, it is exactly when we feel most in control that we’re being manipulated by unseen forces.