Opera Review: “HER | alive.un.dead” — The Sacrifices We Make in the Name of Love

By Aaron Keebaugh

HER | alive.un.dead proves that some stories are best told by trusting the audience’s imagination.

Jeannette Lee as Nurse and Sol Kim Bentley as HER1 in Guerilla Opera’s world premiere production of Emily Koh’s “HER | alive.un.dead.” Photo: Timothy Gurczak

Even the most turbulent operas are usually set right when everyone reconciles at the end. But, in the case of Emily Koh’s HER | alive.un.dead, dark musical undertones suggest that the central conflict — like that between an independently minded teenager and her strict parents — has only just begun.

This latest production from Guerilla Opera, who performed it for the first time at the Pao Arts Center last weekend, leaves most of the narrative’s varied tensions unresolved. And Koh’s music effectively underscores the discord without forcing an undue resolution. If there’s one takeaway from this evening, it’s that a serious clash of values can be overcome — albeit by taking it on a day-by-day basis.

The surrealistic drama unfolds through the experiences of two female leads, each with a distinctive streak of independence. HER1, the daughter of Chinese parents with a hankering for order and status, discovers she is pregnant. The father tries to to force her marry. HER1 refuses. Furious, he disowns her. The mother, who repressed her own desires to achieve balance at home, offers her daughter some comfort. But HER1 retreats into isolation; she dies unexpectedly while birthing her daughter.

The parents vow to change their ways as they adopt their granddaughter, HER2. Yet, as the years pass, things return to the way they had always been: the mother dismisses their new child’s call for self-determination as a temporary phase. while the father remains disengaged, save for moments when he can exert his authority. Feeling alone and unheard, HER2 is driven to suicide. But, through a sudden twist, she returns to life with renewed hope that the relationship with her parents will improve. Time, this ending suggests, will tell.

The music deftly underlines every emotional twist. At times soaring and lyrical, at others gritty and forceful, Koh’s score strives for psychological balance: it reveals the hidden virtues of the opera’s characters as it lays bare their contradictions.

As HER1, Sol Kim Bentley sang with a bright, zesty soprano that channeled a bubbly, even flirtatious personality. “A Beautiful Night,” with its gentle lilt, reflected her memories about the warm union that brought her a child. Bentley’s character retained her strength even in the opera’s trying moments. Powerful vocal lines maintained her bold defiance in the face of her parents’ condemnation. And when HER1 enters the In-Between — a limbo state after her death— — Bentley conveyed modulated regret about the past, stopping short of sentimentality.

Jeannette Lee as Mum, Jiayin Shi as Dad, and Nina Guo as HER2 in Guerilla Opera’s world premiere production of Emily Koh’s HER | alive.un.dead. Photo: Timothy Gurczak.

Soprano Nina Guo, with her ringing high notes, captured HER2’s youthful vigor and single-mindedness. But, when driven to despair, Guo’s softer tones supplied a palpable intensity. The afterlife reunion between mother and daughter was handled with considerable care by Guo and Bentley — it was a glowing moment of reconciliation.

This opera revolves just as much around MUM, who is a victim of someone else’s overpowering vision. Mezzo-soprano Jeannette Lee brought considerable nuance to the struggle faced by a mother who is trying to maintain a traditional home. When she tells HER1 that a woman should know her place, MUM does so with a twinge of guilt, as if she was trying to convince herself of the perceived truth of her advice. That tension bubbled to the surface in “You!,” where Lee, fiercely angry, charged her husband with destroying more than one life.

DAD remained a stalwart figure through Jiayin Shi’s vivid portrayal, his singing conveying a stoic, even icy demeanor. But Shi also generated sympathy for a man who was too blind to understand the consequences of his action. By the opera’s climax, his sorrowful resonance revealed a man who earnestly wanted to repent.

Mo Zhou’s savvy stage directions made swift and effective use of the intimate venue. Sets included little more than a table and backdrop for video projections, handily proving — as many Guerilla Opera performances do — that fancy dancy special effects do not always make for a good show. HER | alive.un.dead proves that some stories are best told by trusting the audience’s imagination.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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