Coyote Tales

Henry Mollicone

World Premiere at Kansas City Lyric Opera

7 March 1998

I just returned from having attended the world premiere of Henry Mollicone's opera, COYOTE TALES, a unique, exciting work which was received on Saturday at Kansas City Lyric Opera with shouts, foot stamping and a standing ovation from a sold-out audience. A collaborative effort by Mollicone and librettists Sheldon Harnick (best known for the book of Fiddler on the Roof) and Robert Darling, the opera is unlike any I have ever seen. It weaves a rich tapestry of American Indian myths from tales of Old Man Coyote, which are part of the oral tradition of many tribes. The five stories which make up the opera are taken from the Crow, Okanagon, Karok, Klamoth and Hopi tribes, the first four forming the first act, and the second act being the Hopi legend of Pavayoykyasi and the Oraibi Maiden. Commissioned by the Lyric and relying heavily on Native American advisors, the opera was over two years in the making, and the result is an insightful work which reflects the character and low-key, somewhat taciturn nature of Native Americans.

The principal singers were all outstanding, as were, indeed, all aspects of this remarkable production. The sets were circles (representing the circular nature of life, the earth, the universe, indeed of infinity), and a tee-pee, most of the action (with the exception of the scene in the starry firmament) taking place within or on these circles. Notable vocally were tenor Michael Ballam as Coyote, Brian Steele in the baritone role of the storyteller, and Gregory Keil as Pavayoykyasi. The most impressive female voices were Jane Gilbert, a marvelous singer with a rich, creamy mezzo as the fox and Karin Dunne Paludan, a spinto soprano who made an adorable duck.

The 5 stories which make up this operatic pageant deal with the creation of the world by Old Man Coyote; the varied nature of Coyote himself - both good and evil, at once boaster, trickster, and charmer; how Coyote brought fire to the people; Coyote's love for an unreachable star; and finally, his lusting for a beautiful maiden who loves someone else. The unifying principle is that these separate but connected stories are meant to be passed on orally, with a storyteller the means of making these tales into a unified whole. They deal with a humanity, for which Coyote is the archetype, capable of noble deeds and lofty aspirations on the one hand, and the most evil, destructive, and self-serving actions on the other. The rich imagery presented in the scenic design (using circles and tee-pees) of R. Keith Brumley, the lighting of Nicholas Cavallaro, and the costuming of Baker Smith lend a decidedly ``Indian'' flavor to the essentially European style of much of Mollicone's melodious score, the latter adding an emotional component to the opera.

The final scene, in which Pavayoykyasi, the ``moisture bearer'' who brings the life-sustaining dew and rain to the earth, wins the heart of the Hopi maiden, is the only scene in which one senses any of the tugging at the heartstrings which most of us associate with serious opera. Even then, it is ``Native American style'', with less pathos and warmth than many might prefer. Yet, I felt that it was the maiden's attraction to Pavayoykyasi' s selfless giving to the earth, rather than any passion, which made the story seem in tune with the Native American spirit of stewardship of the earth. To have had more expression of emotion would have required sacrificing the essential elements of this extraordinary culture, which so few of us really understand.

I think it is important to understand that this is a very unusual opera, a pageant of sorts, but not heavy with drama or pathos. I felt this reflected the native American culture, which eschews expression of great emotion and stresses sharing of resources, cleverness, and restraint. But, it becomes evident, especially in the final scene, that this is a story, albeit from a particular perspective, of basic human conditions and behavior, of our own irreconcilable differences of good and evil; it is the story of human kind. This is reflected in the closing words of the storyteller, ``As you behave, we shall, too. Old Man Coyote, we are you.''

The libretto of Sheldon Harnick and Robert Darling is brilliantly crafted, full of rich, poetic language, crafted to reflect the Native American attitudes and lore. As a character, they depicted Coyote as lovable and charming, a trickster and a boaster, a noble creater and a clever deceiver. It is understated, amusing, thought-provoking. As fascinating as the stories are, however, what struck me was the lovely melodic music, tonal and harmonic, and quite traditional, really. The music could be described as eclectic, incorporating structures from the past but with traces here and there of contemporary music. This eclecticism is characteristic of Mollicone's own musical style. The music was easy to listen to and it became the unifying component of the opera. The orchestration was particularly beautiful, but there were memorable vocal pieces as well, among them Coyote's aria, ``O stars shining in the night'' and his duet with Star, ``O star dancing in the night,'' in the 4th scene, followed by the Storyteller's aria, ``Coyote tumbled from the sky.'' Coyote's 2nd act opening aria, ``How clever I am!'' was beautifully crafted, and like Coyote himself- very clever- but some of the prettiest melodies in this very lyric 2nd act are sung by the Oraibi maiden and Pavayoykyasi, as he pleads for her hand by proclaiming his ``gift'' of life-giving moisture to the earth as his gift to her. When Coyote defiles the maiden in his lustful pursuit of her, the lovers' bond is broken, and we sense the sadness in both of them, only hinted rather than expressed, and I was aware of the vast space separating a culture which stresses spirituality and resigned acceptance from one which often embraces passionate resistance to custom.

I do not know, nor would I venture to guess, if this opera will become part of the repertoire in the future. It is not in the mold of opera as we know it. But I found it thoughtful, exquisitely crafted, beautiful musically, and faithful to the native American lore it depicted. In short, I loved it, and I felt enormously grateful- indeed honored- to have had the opportunity to see the very first performance of this new work. It was a unique evening of opera which I shall never forget.


The Storyteller    Brian Steele
The Coyote         Michael Ballam
Duck 1             Karin Dunne Paludan
Duck 2             Chad Mc Alester
The Fox            Jane Gilbert
Skookums           Jane Ohmes
                   Julia Parks
                   Marisia Moore
The Star           Suzanne Hillis Ackin
The Maiden         Suzan Hanson
Pavayoykyasi       Gregory Keil
Suiters            Bruce Barr
                   Matthew Foerschler
                   David Soxman
                   Michael Lanman

Musical Director   Russell Patterson
Stage Director     Vincent Liotta
Choreography       Dennis Landsman

Music              Henry Mollicone
Libretto           Sheldon Harnick and Robert Darling

contributed by Lea Frey

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