Opera Review | “Two Corners” | Theater

Click to enlarge Sopranos Kate Johnson and Castine Piper Brown as Sarah and Florine in BE Boykin's world premiere of opera "two corners" June 29, 2024.

  • Kelly Kester Photography
  • On June 29, 2024, BE Boykin’s opera “Two Corners” had its world premiere, starring sopranos Kate Johnson and Kearstin Piper Brown as Sarah and Florine.

World premieres of operas are always cause for celebration, in part because they require years of planning, and the process of developing a work into a classic can take a lifetime (sometimes even longer).

Finger Lakes Opera’s premiere of composer B.E. Boykin and playwright Jarrod Lee’s “Two Corners,” which opens Friday at the MCC Main Stage Theater, represents not only the culmination of hard work but the synthesis of art and social justice.

Boykin’s score is tender and nostalgic, but not so driven by the past that it eschews the emotional honesty demanded by lyricist Jarrod Lee’s direct language in the text. Lee distills the story based on the real-life experiences of the composer’s grandmother, Florine, who grew up with her white friend Sarah in 1950s Alabama. Black people, with the implicit message that true solidarity is only possible when we share each other’s pain and even acknowledge our responsibility for our actions or inactions in causing that pain.

The central conflict of the opera is Sarah’s inability to see the truth of the racial injustice experienced by Florine because accepting the reality would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Their different perspectives are triggered by the same object – an old radio they listened to as children. The early moments of the story are particularly striking.

“It brings me joy,” Sarah said of the radio.

Florine’s answer was full of meaning: “It brings me back.”

Click to enlarge Sopranos Kearstin Piper Brown and Kate Johnson play Florine and Sarah. - Kelly Kester Photography

  • Kelly Kester Photography
  • Sopranos Kearstin Piper Brown and Kate Johnson play Florine and Sarah.

Boykin’s harmonic language is simple and accessible, a major advantage in a storytelling medium where complex layers of meaning are often the norm. Throughout, the music has an enduring lyrical emotion. At key moments in the play, Boykin turns to some retro pop and even gospel.

The entire cast demonstrated excellent vocal control, being able to engage with the opera’s dramatic tone with equal intensity and working together to express the characters’ complex humanity.

As Florine, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (also interim host of “WXXI Classical”) skillfully conveyed the quiet sadness of a woman who must cope with adversity alone.

The wonderful paradox of this story lies in Florine’s recollection that the woman she considered her best friend was not there to support her. Sarah – played with earnestness by soprano Kate Johnson – is unable to grasp the reality of the segregated school system or the dangers she faces as a black child amid race riots.

Perhaps the opera’s highlight comes in the first of four scenes, when Brown sings Florine’s account of her relationship with An extremely beautiful aria of children’s relationships.

Other poignant moments in “Two Corners” are delivered by members of the supporting cast. Mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell plays Florine’s mother Julia, and her singing voice is rich, earthy and mesmerizing. Her advice to young Florine to “be careful” sounds like a stirring lullaby.

Click to enlarge Kate Johnson, Kearstin Piper Brown and bass Joshua Conyers at the end of Finger Lakes Opera's world premiere scene "two corners" June 28, 2024.

  • Kelly Kester Photography
  • Kate Johnson, Kearstin Piper Brown and bass Joshua Conyers at the Finger Lakes Opera on June 28, 2024 Opera’s world premiere of Two Corners.

Baritone Joshua Conyers plays Florine’s husband Hollis with a warm and lovable performance. He performed brilliantly as he brought the classic hymn “How Great Thou” to a climax in the composer’s beautiful arrangement.

The story is simple, but the meaning is complex—the opera moves at a brisk pace under the smooth musical direction of FLO Artistic Director Gerard Floriano and the clear stage direction of Kimille Howard on the podium. The production takes about an hour, with only four scenes, and could have been longer. Then again, length is a dangerous thing for an opera.

Click to enlarge Kelly Kester Photography

In this world premiere, Finger Lakes Opera presents a beautifully crafted opera available for multiple productions by opera companies across the country.

While many arts organizations aspire to affect change through diversity efforts, FLO deserves support in putting it into practice. The company commissioned black artists to create a story with black audiences in mind, and the result was an unusually diverse opera audience. Hopefully FLO can continue on this track.

An encore performance of Two Corners will be performed on Sunday, June 30 at 2 p.m. fingerlakesopera.org.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer for City magazine. He can be contacted via: [email protected].

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