It's no surprise that fledgling Microscopic Opera's second production featured engaging music and fine singing. What was unexpected was the thematic intrigue of the show's narratives -- something opera doesn't always provide.
The contemporary chamber operas the troupe specializes in might be an expection to that rule. (Hard for me to say, because we hadn't seen many around here till now.) After all, Microscopic's premiere, this past spring, did feature the emotional gut-punch of Jake Hegge's "To Hell and Back."
But this show's intrigue was of a different species.
"Monkey's Paw" might seem an unlikely wellspring of such interest: Its source material was W.W. Jacobs' familiar story about an elderly couple making an ill-fated wish on the titular enchanted appendage.
But, for starters, Jonathan Kupper's musically lush new adaptation of the Victorian horror classic is suffused with a kind of religious fatalism that's rare in contemporary work.
For instance, a song sung by the couple's son, Herbert (Daniel Teadt), is one of consigning his fate to God yet acknowledging he mightn't live out the day. (He doesn't.) And the crepuscular one-act ends with the cast of four (including Raymond Blackwell, William Andrews and Carissa Kett) singing, "We are the monsters. We are the ghosts. We only haunt ourselves."
"Happy Garden" is significantly more contemporary, if no less fatalistic. It's based on a 1962 Kurt Vonnegut story about a future society where old age, disease and even death have been overcome -- but population is kept constant by requiring each birth to be balanced by a volunteer's assisted suicide.
Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith (who also directed "Monkey's") stages the new one-act in a wry, manic style that works for both Vonnegut and composer Katarzyna Brochocka's playfully atonal score. Key roles include the narrator, played by Mary Beth Sederberg with delightful weirdness and crazy hair, and a man in a maternity ward (Jeffrey Gross) who learns that his wife has just given birth to triplets. That means he must find not one volunteer suicide, but three.
As she sings the opening passage, Sederberg's wild eyes make it clear that this society's inhabitants have cracked under the strain of utopian perfection. But what's the alternative? As the character Dr. Hitz points out, before population was checked by his regime of control, "There wasn't even enough drinking water. And nothing to eat except seaweed."
Goldsmith and the cast (especially Gross and Erica Olden, as a perky gas-chamber attendant) milk every ounce of comedy from the script and then some. But, like good satire should, none of it goes down easily: Overpopulation and water shortages are bigger problems than ever. And Vonnegut's solutionless formula -- that the only planet we could survive on is one we'd never wish to inhabit -- offers nothing like comfort.
Likewise flying in the face of our society's general belief in progress, "Monkey's Paw" for its part suggests that getting what you want is worse than wanting what you haven't got.
The thematic unity of these two thoughtful works is reinforced by the show's enhanced production values. Since its first show, Microscopic has added a raised stage, and instead of a lone pianist, musical director Andres Cladera conducts a small orchestra. Underneath a borrowed professional lighting grid, it all sounded great in the donated empty retail space (located between the Borders and the state store on Baum Boulevard, in East Liberty).
"Monkey's Paw" & "Happy Garden of Life" continue with performances at 8 p.m. nightly tonight, Sun., Sept. 12, and Sept. 17-19. www.microscopicopera.com