Opera isn't a genre we often turn to for something new. Aside from the occasional new work at the Pittsburgh Opera (like 2008's The Grapes of Wrath), we're mostly talking about work from the 1800s and earlier. Which is swell, especially with the wealth of talent on display in these parts, also through the likes of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Undercroft Opera.
But this fledgling venture, created to showcase the shorter, contemporary "chamber opera" works seldom performed around here, does bring something new, and it's hit the ground running. With fine productions of the one-acts "The Proposal" and "To Hell and Back" at Lawrenceville's little Grey Box Theatre, Microscopic Opera announces itself as an important player.
Milton Granger's "Proposal" is a comic work in which a woman who's just been proposed to calls a meeting of her "board" – the various aspects of her personality, from 5-year-old to security guard to Sensuous Woman, each sung by a different performer. "To Hell and Back," by Jake Heggie (who composed the Dead Man Walking opera that Pittsburgh Opera staged several years back) is a harrowing piece for two singers. One is a battered woman; the other is the mother of her husband, the man who's doing the battering.
Intimacy is the watchword for Microscopic. And indeed, there's no getting away from the grand piano sitting 10 feet behind your ears, especially when pianist William Larson pounds out Heggie's thunderous score. (A few dissonant chords shocked some listeners right out of their seats.) And Carissa Kett and Erica Olden, as mother-in-law and daughter, filled the room with their powerful voices. They were singers, moreover, who could act, too, making for an especially potent performance.
Olden is a Microscopic co-founder, along with Andres Cladera, the troupe's musical director as well as the artistic director of the Renaissance City Women's and Men's choirs. And of course the cast reflected a fair amount of overlap with the local opera community at large: Undercroft opera founding and artistic director Mary Beth Sederburg, for instance, sang Sensuous Woman in "Proposal."
The only drawback to the March 12 performance I saw was sight lines. Grey Box's lack of either a raised stage or riser seating meant that if you were in the third or fourth row (out of four), you probably couldn't see any action that took place on the floor (which was more than you might imagine). And if you sat, as I did, behind someone 6'4", it was effectively obstructed-view seating.
But Microscopic's inaugural production shouldn't be missed. There are two more perfromances, at 8 p.m. Sat., March 13, and 7 p.m. Sun., March 14. (www.microscopicopera.org).