Arts & Theater

Unconventional Rogues bringing one-act opera to midtown Sacramento cafe

Rogue Music Project members Jennifer Reason, left, Kevin Doherty, Carrie Hennessey, Omari Tau and Sarah Fitch. The group is taking on opera at downtown’s Magpie Café.
Rogue Music Project members Jennifer Reason, left, Kevin Doherty, Carrie Hennessey, Omari Tau and Sarah Fitch. The group is taking on opera at downtown’s Magpie Café.

Sacramento’s Rogue Music Project is taking on opera.

Since nothing the Rogues do is constrained by convention, the inaugural event of RMP’s opera season is occurring Friday, July 19, at midtown’s Magpie Café. Welcome to opera in supper-club style.

Soprano Carrie Hennessey is taking on the role of Estelle in Hugo Weisgall’s one-act music drama “The Stronger.” Estelle projects a façade that attempts to live up to the opera’s title, but the reality is that she is very insecure about her relationship with her husband.

By degrees she becomes unraveled during a Christmas Eve encounter with her friend Lisa, whom she suspects of being infatuated with her spouse. Playing opposite Hennessey in the nonsinging role of Lisa is Sarah Fitch, portraying a woman who finds herself unexpectedly being confronted and challenged. Is Estelle simply paranoid, or has she seen into Lisa’s heart?

“Estelle has sacrificed much to be where she is,” said Hennessey of her character, “and is trying to get to ‘the truth.’ She’s a bit over the top due to her insecurity, and perhaps has something about which to be insecure.”

The opera’s single act is only about half an hour in duration, which concentrates the intensity of the plot.

“I was fascinated by its compact punch, its perfect length, and its devastating story,” said Omari Tau, who is directing the production and first encountered “The Stronger” as an undergraduate at Michigan State University, where he found the score on a library shelf. “The music seems equally taut and elastic, tonal and atonal, rhythmic and recitativo (spoken),” he said.

The Rogue Music Project intends to put its stamp on opera by delving into neglected repertoire that matches their special talents.

“Like so many of the other live arts, opera has been counted out time and time again. It’s not going anywhere. It is, however, changing,” said Tau. “The big war horses of old are primarily presented in all their splendor in larger houses such as The Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and San Francisco Opera. However, medium-sized organizations and small companies such as ours have risen in the ranks by doing what those larger companies can’t do: reach the people directly. Companies like RMP are uniquely equipped to take that on.”

Hennessey addressed the local and personal aspect of small-scale opera produced in an intimate venue: “What a joy that the amazing Magpie Café wanted to collaborate with us. We want to bring opera to Sacramento. Our intent is to collaborate and partner in a way that only a group like ours can. We’ve forged personal relationships with local businesses and other artists over our years here, and want to be sure to highlight these relationships in unexpected ways. Thus Magpie.”

The Rogue Music Project is best known for raucous cabaret-inspired performances and boisterous après-opera party events, like the recent send-ups of “Tosca” and “Rigoletto.” But RMP is a young organization and intends to branch out vigorously.

“This season is about meeting the public,” said Tau. “We are taking on more serious works, including a world premiere by Sacramento composer, Ryan Suleiman, and we’re partnering with other artists, including M5Arts, who are known for their exciting events such as Art Hotel and Art Street.”

Weisgall composed “The Stronger” in 1952. The libretto was written by Richard Henry Hart, using August Strindberg’s play of the same name as source material. Weisgall composed his first version of the opera for piano, later creating a score expanded for chamber orchestra. Jennifer Reason accompanies the performance on keyboard, using Weisgall’s original piano score.

“We will tend toward smaller, more intimate works that provide audiences with unique musical and theatrical experiences,” said Tau. “I’ve always been fascinated by ‘brevity in opera.’”

The brevity of “The Stronger” provides space for audiences and artists to interact more extensively. Hennessey hopes that attendees will not rush off to their cars like most opera-goers tend to do after a four-hour marathon production.

“We all may want to decompress together and have a conversation afterward,” she said. “We want everyone to be open to the possibility of what a shared, immersive theatrical experience can hold.”

Hennessey underscored the nature of the opera’s asymmetric combat between the histrionic soprano and her silent target.

“The subject matter is still relevant in today’s world in the ways women interact with one another with suspicion and negativity, the way many women have difficulty finding their own individual identity and take on roles expected by society. Why do women continue to treat each other in these ways?” she asked. “August Strindberg was questioning these things over 100 years ago and we want audience members to start a conversation.”

If You Go

Who: The Rogue Music Project, Hugo Weisgall’s “The Stronger”

Where: Magpie Café, 1601 16th Street, Sacramento

When: Friday, July 19, 9:30 p.m. (Doors open at 9.); Saturday, July 20, 9:30 p.m. (Doors open at 9.); Monday, July 22, 7 p.m. (Doors open at 6:30.)

Tickets: $25, ,