By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photo by Nine Photography
Fort Worth Opera gave us a taste of a darkly funny baker’s tale last season. Now the sentient baguette is back in a freshly baked
Companionship is the modern operatic tale of a woman on a mission to produce the perfect baguette. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, Leslie Sinclair finds therapy in baking and obsessively turns out baguettes in her tiny apartment kitchen. With her 207,345th baguette, the story takes a sharp turn. As Leslie sticks a knife in the dough, it begs — in the slightly odd way that dough apparently speaks — “Please not to cut me.” The audience, both amused and unnerved, laughs.
With music and libretto by Rachel J. Peters, Companionship is based on a short story by Arthur Phillips. Excerpts of the piece were featured in Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers workshop in 2018. This year, Companionship is back as a full-length, staged opera, ready for its big debut at FWO’s 2019 festival.
Artistic director Joe Illick looks forward to it. “Our world premiere of Companionship is far-out and hysterical and, at the same time, painfully real,” he says. “If you have ever obsessed about anything, been in a relationship, have siblings or have parents, then this is a must-see for you. Rachel J. Peters is a creative genius, and we are thrilled to present her work.”
New Yorker Laura Anderson Barbata, who wrote and starred in last year’s The Eye of the Beholder at Amphibian Stage Productions, is tackling the sticky issue of designing costumes for the dough as well as the human characters.
Peters, based in Brooklyn, first came across Phillips’ continued on Page 102 unpublished short story on the author’s website while looking for locally penned source material to inspire new opera scenes. “I fell in love with the first sentence and had to pursue it,” she says. While the composer says she bakes the occasional loaf of banana bread or batch of chocolate chip cookies, it wasn’t the scent of baking that pulled her in. “What grabbed me was Leslie’s psychology and inner life; I think that Arthur — through Leslie’s character — speaks articulately about depression, mental illness, women’s complicated relationships with food and family dynamics. There’s a lot to mine there.”
Soon after the dough comes alive, it begins taking over Leslie’s life. Peters points out that even among the opera’s funniest moments — like when an exterminator unexpectedly breaks into a Beatles-inspired song — there are signs that the dough won’t be contained. “It has an interaction with Leslie’s father, and you start to sense that something is not quite right. Then the rest of the family shows up and things kind of explode; it takes a really wrong turn from there,” she says.
In a plot twist that recalls the movie Gremlins, there’s a scene where the dough reproduces, and unbaked baby baguettes — portrayed by local singers ages 6 to 11 — begin filling Leslie’s tiny kitchen. “It is a comedy, but it’s quite dark,” Peters says. “It’s funny until it’s not funny anymore.”
Peters got her musical start with piano lessons and choir as a child in St. Louis. It was there, at the age of 10, that she first saw an opera — Porgy and Bess (also on the FWO lineup this spring). “That performance was a lightbulb moment for me; something clicked about the way the words and music worked together. I remember laughing at certain lines, and I didn’t know that was something you could do at an opera.”
She also remembers being impressed by the pop star Debbie Gibson, because she wrote her own songs. Later, she found inspiration and influence in the jazz vocalist, pianist, songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
“The first time I heard ‘Four Women,’ a wormhole opened in my brain,” she says. After studying both composition and voice in college, she briefly pursued a career as an opera singer before discovering that her true passion was in writing for the stage — opera, musical theater, concert works and songs.
Peters’ piano and vocal score for Companionship tells the story in nine scenes (70 minutes, no intermission) rather than in the traditional two-act structure; the music is more episodic than overarching. Listen, and you’ll find that certain characters are expressed in styles that pull from popular culture, including jazz influences. No supertitles are needed for the clearly sung dialogue in the intimate Fort Worth Botanic Garden auditorium, with the music carrying tension as the scenes play out, punctuating both the comedy and the drama.
Peters points out that exploring serious issues through inanimate objects, a recurring theme among her works, is a way to reveal things about our humanity from a safe distance.
“The piece is fundamentally about what happens when we believe that we’ll be guaranteed some sort of reward if we keep sacrificing ourselves over and over again,” she says.