Dinner at Eight: Only the Hearty Go On

Thursday evening the Minnesota Opera hosted the social media presentation of their upcoming opera, Dinner at Eight. As the final dress rehearsal for its world premiere (March 11), the performance had its share of missteps and repeats, but overall it captivated the audience with its mordant, bitter sweet score and its spare, art deco staging of a legendary era in Broadway high society that may never have existed.

Based upon the very successful stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, this new opera plays against the pathos of the character types embodied in the Hollywood version in 1933. Whereas ruined lives caused by the Great Depression were very much a part of 1930s zeitgeist, here the haute couteur dinner attendees emerge as ruthless, sometimes resigned survivors of the unending Darwinian struggle to maintain social status.

As a result, composer William Bolcom’s musical score hovers primarily in the minor keys to undercut the folly of the hostess’ social aspirations and underscore the anguish of a fading silent movie idol too vain and too self-medicated to accept the loss of his former stature. Mark Campbell’s lyrics, though straining for cleverness during the opening chorus, do capture the hope, humor, and/or despair that motivates each of the characters throughout this operatic Vanity Fair.

If the performers held back to save their voices, it wasn’t evident in this dress rehearsal. Mary Dunleavy as the socialite wife Millicent Jordan, Stephen Powell as her ineffectual businessman/husband, Brenda Harris as the exuberant aging actress, Carlotta Vance, and the rest of the cast sang their parts with gusto. Their characters may appear foolish in the triviality of their aspirations, but the actors embodied them with emotional conviction.

All in all, the opera Dinner at Eight is a wise, funny, and ironic commentary on the aspirations and motivations that mark the human condition. Enjoy one of the performances on either March 11 (world premiere), March 16, or March 18 and 19. Social media followers can receive a $25/ticket discount for the Sunday March 19th performance by using Coupon Code: lobster25 for purchase at mnopera.org/dinner-at-eight or 612-333-6669.

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