Theatre Review: Opera Ithaca Features Double-Billed Productions from Women

Liberation and The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace, Dir. by Susannah Berryman and Richard Montgomery, Opera Ithaca, The Cherry Artspace, Ithaca, NY

In the sixteenth century, the artistic works of women were rarely, if ever, praised, produced, or published. This is still mostly true today, especially in the world of opera, where the historically popular works of men are almost exclusively produced. In 1625, Francesca Caccini became the first woman in history to compose an opera—The Liberation of Ruggiero—which also became the second Italian opera to ever be performed outside of Italy. Opera Ithaca is currently breaking tradition at The Cherry Artspace with their double-billed production of the one-acts Liberation and The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace, the oldest and latest operas respectively to be written by women.
Opening with the Italian opera Liberation (directed by Richard Montgomery with music direction by Mila Henry), a projection of a white-bearded man in dark sunglasses warns of a superior social order in which the practice of art and performance are forbidden. Living in this dystopian society—a metatheatrical world of Montgomery’s creation—are the members of an opera company who meet clandestinely at night to improvise and perform any opera for which they can still find a score.
Entertaining any prop or makeshift costume they can find (designed by Norm Johnson and Michael Sullivan), the company of this impromptu production performs Liberation. Melodramatic exchanges keep spirits high. These are fun, music-loving people; no circumstance, however unfortunate, will keep them from performing.
The opera follows Ruggiero (Kameron Ghanavanti), a famous warrior who has been taken to a remote island to protect him from a dangerous prophecy. When the evil sorcerous Alcina (Tamara Acosta) casts a spell on Ruggiero to make him love her instead of his betrothed, the good sorcerous Melissa (Courtney Elvira) comes to his rescue.  
Both women are powerful; their respective demeanors, however, distinguish good from evil. Acosta’s Alcina is wickedly proud, and her voice is fittingly strong and forceful. She wants Ruggiero for herself and will do anything to get him. Elvira’s Melissa is confident yet sweet; her voice is a bit lighter than Acosta’s but still compelling.
The same can be said of Elvira’s performance as Augusta Ada Byron in the second show of the evening, The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace (directed by Susannah Berryman). Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera follows Ada, a chronically ill mother and wife, as she attempts to pursue a revolutionary mathematical project on top of her domestic life.
The real-life Ada Lovelace was known for her part in the early creation of computer programming code in the late nineteenth century. A birth in her family, however, was scandalously known for an incestuous affair, which Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) published an article about in The Atlantic in 1869.
Well portrayed by Madison Drace, a determined Stowe makes a short but striking appearance in this opera. She visits the Lovelace home in hopes of speaking with Ada about her article but is sent away before we can see her story come to fruition. Unfortunately, Stowe’s character does not play a larger role in this opera; the little presence she does have feels accidental and leaves us wanting more. And the hummingbird she gifts Ada (brilliantly portrayed by Lydia Kelly) before leaving just seems odd.
The only explanation one might find for Stowe’s gift is perhaps that the speedy bird is meant to represent Ada, who is on the brink of flying free from her cage and flourishing as a mathematician. Fluttering her arms and peering around with wide-eyed curiosity, Kelly, dressed in all black, portrays the hummingbird with delicately agile movements. She doesn’t only represent the bird, though; throughout the show, Kelly takes her place as a series of furniture pieces. (On multiple occasions, she impressively stands in a demi-squat, arms out like a chair, and supports whoever is “sitting.”)
Johnson’s simple set design does not feature any furniture pieces. The stage is bare, with the exception of six life-size black-and-white portraits hanging side-by-side along the upstage wall. Serving as a reminder of the past, each photograph depicts the historical figures portrayed in the show. (Ingeniously, the actors reside “offstage” behind their respective portraits.)
When Ada’s friend, the inventor Charles Babbage, later pays a visit, he asks her to accompany him to London. If she were to go, she would put her mathematical intelligence to work on his new analytical engine. This prospect excites Ada but leaves her facing a dilemma: choosing herself or her family.
Ada doesn’t want to be like her father, who was absent throughout her childhood due to his insane preoccupation with his work; she feels guilty about leaving her children behind. But she also wants to explore the exciting possibilities of innovation she might find working with Babbage.
This challenge is one that women have often faced throughout time; trying to balance a family and career has put many in a difficult position in which they must deal with judgement from society. Even Ada’s husband, William King-Noel (Kameron Ghanavati), is angry at the idea of her leaving to work with Babbage.
Ghanavati’s William first comes off as brooding and authoritative; he believes Ada belongs at home as a mother and wife. But when he later encouragingly tells Ada to go, Sankaram and Handel remind us that women are capable of both; they need not choose so long as they have a supportive partner by their side.
            As this opera only runs bout 45 minutes, Ada’s story is cut short; every plotline feels rushed and unfinished. As a result, William’s character arch isn’t ever fully developed. One moment he’s a typical dominating husband and the next he is loving and supportive. (When did this change occur? This isn’t Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Whether an unsuccessful character choice on Ghanavati’s part or a structural issue within the libretto itself, William’s transformation is unconvincing.
            The music, however, is lovely. A grand piano and string quartet (led by Mila Henry) play a clean and modern score, which vividly embodies Ada’s drive and curiosity. In great contrast to Liberation—the music of which is rightfully baroque in its grandly ornamented musical flourishes and harpsichord accompaniment—the score of Ada Lovelace is energetic and bright.
            In each show, the music itself counteracts the genre; Liberation’s comedy balances its heavier sound, as Ada Lovelace’s drama does its lightness. A fitting transition between a dark Ithaca winter and cheerful spring, Opera Ithaca’s final production of the season achieves artistic success in its harmonious balancing of polar opposites.