A popular trend nowadays is the vocal recital "plus": adding a visual or theatrical element, or at the very least a theme, to the performance of a selection of songs or a song cycle. Tuesday night, the Lyric Theater presented a number of Eastman School voice students in two different approaches to lyric theater — in a space well suited to them.
"Hearing Ophelia," conceived and directed by Megan Steigerwald, takes Ophelia's lines from "Hamlet," adds a number of musical settings to them, and artfully slices and dices them into an intriguing theatrical format, in which a Composer (Emily Siar) studying the character is confronted by a multitude of Ophelias, each telling one bit of her story (acted and sung compellingly by Ashley Cooley, Julia Fedor, Amanda Guidi, Caroline Nielson, Hailey McAvoy, Michele Currenti, Kelly Whitesell, Robin Steitz, Elizebeth Barnes, and Sara Neally).
Shakespeare gave Hamlet the title role, but he gave Ophelia the good tunes; this production offered some songs that were discoveries to me. I did not know of Brahms' straightforwardly lyrical songs, Berlioz's haunting "La mort d'Ophelie," or a real rarity, Richard Strauss's slightly freaky "Ophelia Lieder," whose weird harmonies and Expressionist atmosphere certainly don't sound like any of his popular art songs – though they certainly are effective.
"Theater Lieder," as its title suggests, was a much less elaborate, but just as effective, presentation — in part because it is based on Schumann's "A Woman's Life and Love," one of the most popular of Romantic song cycles.
In these nine songs, a woman goes from first love to wedded bliss to motherhood to mourning, all in about 25 minutes. Schumann's exquisite music lends sublimity to some rather obvious and sentimental poetry, and Andrea McGaugh's interpretation makes the piece engaging without trivializing it. She takes the piece at face value, acting out a simple but emotional story with the help of three (almost) silent partners: Henry Benson, Jennifer Lawrence, and Galen Otten. And, not least, McGaugh has a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice and a pleasing, unaffected stage presence — both ideal for this piece.
Both of these presentations also represented outstanding collaborations with a fine pianist: Edward Rothmel for "Hearing Ophelia," Shichao Zhang in "Theater Lieder."
Both "Hearing Ophelia" and "Theater Lieder" have ended their Fringe runs.