To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a guy who used to build hammers, everything looks like a government conspiracy to exploit, dominate, and subjugate American workers. And if that hammersmith is Milcom Negley, there's only one thing to do when the paranoia gets to be too much: hunker down at The National Toby Jug Museum, call the authorities, and wait for the FBI to make their move. That's the mouthful of a premise for the 2018 opera The Last American Hammer — a "heartfelt contemporary satire" composed by Peter Hilliard with a libretto by Matt Boresi — running through Sun., March 1 at the Pittsburgh Opera.
Negley (Timothy Mix) fills his now-open schedule peddling conspiracies about the U.S. government, Rust Belt manufacturing, and the National Endowment for the Arts. About the latter, it's an outrage to Negley that the government would sign checks for a quaint museum that celebrates novelty mugs but do nothing to keep his beloved hammer factory afloat. The museum's curator, Tink Enraught (Caitlin Gotimer), is patient with her agitated "captor," serving him tea and cookies while politely reminding him of the value of art, of imagination, of "delicate things." The cast is rounded out by FBI rookie Dee Dee Reyes (Antonia Botti-Lodovico), who comes into the situation expecting a high-octane hostage conflict but soon discovers she's here to babysit a kook.
The disparate components of the plot and format — hammers, Toby jugs, conspiracy theories, opera — may rub some as excessively quirky for quirky's sake, but that's not quite how it plays out. It may be heavy-handed in its central conflict between art and industry, not to mention the bull-in-a-china-shop imagery of Negley wielding a hammer surrounded by tenuously perched antiques. But opera is not a forum for subtlety; the trio's performances are intense, poignant, and gradually get sadder and bleaker as the show goes on. The story is ludicrous, but there's a whole lot of political salience in each of the characters' motives, particularly the disenfranchised white factory worker from Ohio justifying his unemployment with right-wing conspiracies.
The librettos, sung in English, sadly don't deliver. The melodies are dissonant and angular, which might fit the story but don't give your ears a whole lot to engage with. Of course, this is a satire, and it's possible that as an opera philistine, I may have missed certain tropes that were being riffed on.
The Last Hammer may be deliberately unconventional — including in its uncommonly svelte 90-minute runtime — and it may not always land its punches, but it is never boring. If you're reluctant about opera in general, this conspiracy theory-filled, hammer factory vs. mug museum story might get you on board.