This story is featured in CityBeat's June 14 print edition.
An opera focusing on military families receiving the worst possible news has its world premiere this month at Cincinnati Opera.
The Knock is an intimate one-act opera that tells the story of three women waiting for news of their deployed husbands and the lieutenant who must inform one of them that her spouse has died. The bad news is delivered in a formalized ritual beginning with a knock at the front door.
Playwright Deborah Brevoort, who wrote the script for The Knock, devoted several years to interviewing military families for her play The Comfort Team, commissioned by Virginia Stage in 2008 and premiered in 2012 with rave reviews from critics and audiences.
“It was a three-year project because the military community wouldn’t open up unless I committed to forging relationships and really listening to them,” Brevoort tells CityBeat. “So, I did that, and it was a very powerful experience. I stay in touch with many of those women today.”
The Comfort Team has been produced throughout the U.S., but Brevoort said she felt the story of families grappling with the emotional turmoil of a spouse at war had potential as an opera. She spent another two years searching for an appropriate composer.
Several years earlier, Brevoort was paired with Serbian American composer Aleksandra Vrebalov in an American Lyric Theater workshop for fledgling opera composers and librettists. “We hadn’t seen each other in years,” Brevoort recalled, “But when we met and I told her the story, she started crying and I sensed I’d found the composer.”
Vrebalov’s response was triggered by the story’s resonance to her own family’s history.
“My grandfather is a national hero, and my father grew up as a war orphan,” she tells CityBeat. “My family had pride in having someone who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“But on the other hand, my father grew up without parents — his mother died shortly after his father during WWII. None of that pride helps when you’re by yourself. So, we always had that sense of a double-sided tragedy.”
Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned The Knock with Glimmerglass Opera, with Cincinnati Opera commissioning a chamber setting for the Harry T. Wilks Theater’s intimate space in Music Hall.
Originally scheduled to premiere at Glimmerglass in 2020, a COVID-19 resurgence forced its cancellation. But Glimmerglass artistic director Francesca Zambello pushed for creating a filmed version. Cincinnati Opera will premiere the stage version and the film is available on Cincinnati Opera’s website.
The filmed version is a stunning piece of work. The ominous sense of dread and urgency is heard in Vrebalov’s brooding opening phrases as a woman approaches a lovely house set in an idyllic fall landscape.
But despite the almost unbearable tension and the knowledge that a knock is coming, the music is lyrical, passionate and beautifully scored, heightened by words that are true to the hearts of the characters singing them.
The opera opens with three women, one with an infant, waiting to hear from their husbands who are deployed to Fallujah in Iraq. Two hours away from the opera’s setting in Colorado, a disgruntled army lieutenant confronts his terror at informing one of the women that her husband has been killed.
For Brevoort, opera’s economy with language helped her to create a more powerful libretto.
“I have an intuitive knack for writing for music even though I don’t read music and I can’t sing,” she explains. “Working with opera has made my language more poetic and active.”
Vrebalov noted that the libretto’s brevity brought emotions into sharper focus and provided firm structure for creating musical tension.
“I connected with the range of emotions, but I always knew that there was tension throughout,” Vrebalov said. “When there are good feelings, the gentle tonal language conveys that, and when there emotional scenes become more intense, my sonic palette became denser, darker, with more anxiety”
The stage premiere is a unique reversal in the performing arts world: a film originally meant for the stage is now having its stage premiere.
“The film process changed how we saw the piece,” explained Alison Moritz, who directed the film version and will stage Cincinnati Opera’s production. “We are going back to the drawing board because the performing space in Cincinnati is such an intimate space.”
Moritz, who has staged acclaimed productions for companies in Washington, D.C., Austin, Omaha, Oregon and New Orleans, is encouraged by successful productions in the Harry T. Wilks Studio including As One and Blind Injustice.
“After visiting the Wilks space and meeting with Cincinnati’s production team, we came up with a concept that will feel intimate and restore the theatricality of the opera.
“Opera can stop time, and that’s what this piece does,” Moritz says. “In the film, close-ups and wide shots provided a different perspective. The stage demands a more immediate visual language and we’re working to achieve that.”
Three members of the Glimmerglass cast reprise their roles for Cincinnati. Mary-Hollis Hundley sings Jo Jenner, the mother of a newborn; Stephanie Sanchez is the commanding officer’s wife and Armando Contreras is the conflicted bearer of bad news, Lt. Roberto Gonzalez.
Conductor Stephanie Rhodes Russell makes her Cincinnati Opera debut.
When asked how military families responded to The Knock, Vrebalov and Brevoort are looking forward to hearing from audiences for the first time.
“We couldn’t meet our audiences because of COVID,” Vrebalov said. “It will be amazing and exciting to meet them in Cincinnati and I’m humbled to have that experience.”
Cincinnati Opera has several related programs planned, including talkback sessions after each performance with cast and community members.
For Moritz, these sessions are crucial to the success of any opera, but especially for The Knock.
“These are women whose stories we never hear,” she said, “And they and their families put themselves on the line for the rest of the country every day.
“The team in Cincinnati sees this as a vehicle for conversation, looking at it from a holistic point of view,” she added. “It takes those people on the ground in Cincinnati to see the potential for resonance within the community.”
The Knock, Cincinnati Opera, June 23-July 7. Info: cincinnatiopera.com.
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