Coming to The Capital Fringe Festival: “The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ by Andrew Earle Simpson

If you think that the recent power outages are tough, just wait till you see what the six characters in this opera are up against!  The Outcasts of Poker Flat, a new one-act chamber opera by composer/librettist Andrew Earle Simpson (faculty, Catholic University), will premiere at the Capital Fringe Festival on July 13, 5:45 PM, at the Mountain at Mt. Vernon Square United Methodist Church (See subsequent performances below).

Andrew Earle Simpson.

Simpson’s 70-minute opera gives new life to Bret Harte’s 1869 short story set in Gold-Rush California. The short story’s plot is straightforward: six characters, thrown together by chance, face death in a Sierra Nevada blizzard. Four of the characters – a gambler, two prostitutes, and a thief – have been exiled from the mining camp of Poker Flat; the remaining two are innocent young lovers eloping towards Poker Flat to be married. The two groups meet en route, and their decision to camp together results in the snowstorm stranding them.  Any distinctions between the “bad” and the “good” characters diminish as the story progresses, but the actions of each person show different traits: some are patient, some noble, some cowardly and even dastardly. The story – and the opera based on it – covers a very wide emotional spectrum: crude humor, romantic longing, violent fury, gentle death. Much of the show is irreverent and quirky, setting the more stark moments in high relief: there is also a good deal of up-tempo music in the score.

Although the opera depicts six characters pitted against the harshness of nature, it is also a story of redemption, celebrating heroism and courage even as it portrays betrayal and abandonment. Harte’s very rich story gives ample room for expressive growth, and the libretto builds upon the story’s structure, adapting it to a music narrative. One example of this is that each character in the libretto is associated with a bird (something not seen in Harte’s story): the mountain chickadee, for example, is Piney’s bird. This small bird not only mirrors Piney’s delicate stature, the bird’s behaviors mimic Piney: it inhabits the Sierra Nevada region, does not migrate to warmer climates in winter, mates with one partner for life, and typically builds nests from pre-existing holes (something the outcasts do, by taking shelter in a half-finished cabin).  Each bird symbolizes something about its character: Uncle Billy, as will become clear, is a buzzard.

The cast of six combines experienced opera professionals and newcomers. John Oakhurst, the gambler, is portrayed by baritone James Rogers. Soprano Rachel Evangeline Barham plays Cassie, the young prostitute who loves Oakhurst. Mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell is Lori, the older prostitute who takes a motherly interest in Piney Woods, the young lover (soprano Deborah Sternberg) who is eloping with Tom Simson, known as “The Innocent” (tenor Noah Mlotek). All of the characters are done a very bad turn by the nasty Uncle Billy, the thief, played by bass-baritone Mike Baden-Campbell. Composer and librettist Simpson is music director and pianist for this production, directed by Allison Fuentes.

The Music

The Outcasts of Poker Flat is a story about low-caste characters in the 19th-century American West, and the music responds to the spirit and tone of the story by using many folk styles.  Simpson’s score draws on a wide range of styles, each style chosen for its ability to help tell the opera’s story most effectively. Examples of this wide stylistic palette include a bar-room saloon song, a parlor-music piano waltz, an early American “fuguing tune,” a sardonic, rhythmically intricate, dissonant march, a soprano-tenor duet reminiscent of Appalachian folk song and country-western music, and a lyrical trio for two sopranos and mezzo.

The Production

Director Alison Fuentes’ concept for this production is a traveling vaudeville troupe performing “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” as an “operatic entertainment.” This conceptual device gives interesting context to the comic and sentimental elements of the play and score; at the same time, the more serious moments in the opera come to the fore, as even the players lose themselves in the story. Fuentes’ production (as well as the score) plays with the use of meta-theater to explore the distance between “real life” and “stage” reality: the cast members play not only their operatic characters, but the vaudeville actors portraying those characters. Even the pianist becomes part of the show from time to time!

The Outcasts of Poker Flat is a contemporary chamber opera, and also a period piece seen through a modern glass.

More information about the opera and audio examples.

Venue: Mountain – at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church -900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Click on the following performance times to purchase your tickets, or buy them online.



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