By Patrick O’Brien
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of TAKING UP SERPENTS, Chicago Opera Theater’s latest streaming offering, a potent creation where the barrier separating religious ecstasy and deadly poison is so fluid. Literal, even, considering it’s about the fallout of a Pentecostal snake handler’s ministry.
So I did something I hadn’t really been able to do with a contemporary opera’s premiere up to now: I watched it again. And its mysteries pulled me in further.
Streaming may yet prove to be a lifeline for new operas for this very reason. They either catch on or they don’t, with very little in-between, so the ability to rewatch and reabsorb is a booster for slyer works that need that much more time to sink in.
And SERPENTS is sly: a one-act three-person character study, its mood one with chirping crickets and sodium light, when the quiet night either answers your Big Questions or leaves you even more confused.
Kayla (Alexandra Loutsion) is certainly confused, even if she feels she shouldn’t be, having escaped the reach of her preacher Daddy (Michael Mayes). After he was saved, his listlessness was transmuted into venomous piety. “As weak as Eve,” he called her, when she refused to handle a snake herself. Now, he’s been nailed by a timber rattler, and stalwart mother Nelda (Leah Dexter) has tracked Kayla down to implore her to come home and face her reckoning.
Of course, who’s reckoning with whom, and over what, becomes the Bigger Question.
Per the program, this is an extended version of the opera, given last year in Washington and conducted there (as well as here, and surely as surely) by Lidiya Yankovskaya. Even if it’s still in flux, it’s still a tightly coiled piece. Its economy also makes it highly filmable; librettist Jerry Dye directs the opera while Jan Thompson directs the camera, and we’re always looking at what we’re supposed to see. No flab, but a lot of shedded snakeskin.
In her 2016 opera BREAKING THE WAVES, Missy Mazzoli shook up the acoustical opera scene by equating the electric guitar with religious devotion. In SERPENTS, Kamala Sankaram further builds on this idea, adding in a whirlytube and waterphone for her own pure and ethereal sound, shaped further by the speech of Appalachia and speaking in tongues. (She throws in a praise band, too, given the territory.) Her music tightly hugs Dye’s libretto, itself plainspoken but deeply entranced by the eternal verities that one can ponder while, say, watching moths flutter around the lamplight out back behind the dumpster, as Kayla does in her opening aria. “God gets in the cracks a’ things,” she sings, with strength and heartbreak.
As does her mother. God holds this family together even as it cracks them apart. That frisson, perhaps seldom depicted in contemporary opera, is magnetic and pulls you in further and further, up to the final (and maybe a tad sudden) tableau.
It pulls you in so much, you have to rewatch it.
Here’s hoping it comes back, so we can rejoice in — and quake at — its sacred and profane mysteries.
TAKING UP SERPENTS finished streaming March 2nd.
All photos by Sean Su.
Up next from Chicago Opera Theater: a concert reading of Matthew Recio and Royce Vavrek’s THE PUPPY EPISODE (cot.org/puppy) on March 20th.