Red Giant

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Performance (2014). Composed by Adam Matlock; libretto by Brian Slattery; directed by Britt Olsen-Ecker. Produced by Rhymes With Opera, featuring Elisabeth Halliday (soprano), Bonnie Lander (soprano), and Robert Maril (baritone).

During their 2013-2014 season Rhymes With Opera produced Red Giant, a chamber opera composed by Adam Matlock for three singers and a small orchestra. Sf author Brian Francis Slattery wrote the libretto; this was his first foray into writing for the stage. In the story, colonists aboard a small Starship escape a dying planet to wander their galaxy in the hope of finding another habitable world: they realize they are condemned to an endless voyage deeper into space. Red Giant plays with the contrasts of light/dark and hope/despair. The dynamic between the characters is reminiscent of Huis Clos (first performed 1944; 1945; trans Stuart Gilbert as In Camera 1946; vt No Exit) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) – three characters of extremely differing personalities and beliefs playing off and occasionally tormenting one another in a place from which they cannot escape. The libretto shares a similar subject matter with the opera Aniara (1959), based on the poem of the same name by Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson (whom see).

The action opens on the darkened ship interior and three sleeping humans. The characters have no names; they do not name one another, and the programme refers to them by number. 2 (Lander) calls for light, which 3 (Maril) opposes because they need to save power. "For what? ... Sooner or later you have to turn on the light," 2 counters. She argues that they don't know where they're going – there is no way to know that another planet lies ahead; they are flying blind. 3 is also concerned not to wake 1 (Halliday), and he changes the subject from turning on the light to recounting how once the sun felt good. 2 turns the lights on anyway and returns to her bed, furtively glancing at the others as she retrieves a hidden book.

The light and the hushed arguing wake 1. She seems older than the other two and presses her hand into her side as if ill or injured. 2 and 3 seem to defer to her gentleness, and she asks 2 what she is reading. 2 sullenly tells her to mind her own business, but 1 simply asks, "Would you read it to me?" and 2 gives in. The book recounts the history of their dying world, how the planet was once bountiful – waters and forests and fields – but that the Sun began to give too much light, drying up the water and eventually driving the people Underground to escape the deadly heat.

At this point 3 interrupts 2's narrative, by blurting out that he dreamt of going out of the airlock, killing himself. The other two gracefully pantomime the dream, putting on the suit, going through the airlock, and while 1 and 2 watched, taking off the helmet as the ship raced on without him. There is an aching pause before he finishes, "I felt happy."

The history narrates that thirty generations passed, and they knew they must leave the planet or die when the sun explodes. 1 takes up the story, recounting how the underground population all came together to build small Spaceships – a large one wasn't possible – which could hold three or four people. Not everyone could or chose to go. The ships lifted away, but had no means to communicate with one another.

A radio transmission from the planet suddenly interrupts 1. A man says it will be the last message from the planet as they wait for the end to come. The Scientists have said that the sun could go at any moment. The message is a goodbye to those who have left; until the planet is destroyed they will broadcast the same message every day. This spurs an argument between the three: 3 wants to go back, 2 asserts that they cannot, and 1 insists that there is a way to live with this situation. The argument crescendos and comes to a sudden halt with 1's sudden strong interjection. She recounts that once the sun expands and collapses to form a Black Hole that there is hope. She remembers how a physicist once thought that information would not be lost in a black hole. While this is not a certainty, they choose to believe that the last day of their planet will be preserved. They turn the lights out and return to their sleep.

Suddenly, the radio repeats its earlier message, waking the three, and they slowly move through the to the main console listening to the repeated broadcast. The message falls silent and the three cry out that they want/need to see the sun again. The opera ends in a final tableau of the humans joining hands around the console and looking up as if to conjure another sun. [JGu]

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