Midway through the first act of The Snow Dragon, the child therapist Dora Marx tries to comfort her patient, 12-year-old Billy Binder, during a traumatic visit to her office. “You are home,” she sings. It’s an important moment in Somtow Sucharitkul’s new opera, receiving its world premiere at the Skylight Theatre, and the composer marks it with an decisive musical cadence that is quite a contrast his otherwise swirling, impressionistic score. Just where “home” lies seems to be the big question in The Snow Dragon, which is based on Sucharitkul’s own 1982 short story.
For Billie Binder (sung and acted with delicate sensitivity by Luke Brotherhood), home is not a very pleasant place, thanks to an abusive stepfather who also happens to be a real-life lion tamer. For Dora Marx (a lovely understated performance by Colleen Brooks), home is work, and she is struggling with doubt over her ability to help the children she takes on as patients. In their sessions, Billy has introduced Marx to another sort of home, the fantasy world he visits called The Fallen Country, populated by beings such as the Snow Dragon and an evil Ringmaster.
In Sucharitkul’s vision, these worlds coexist and flow effortlessly in and out of one another. And both his music, and Matthew Ozawa’s spare, effective staging, reflect that idea. The Stepfather is the Ringmaster (both sung with dramatic power by Dan Kempson). Billy’s mother and an endangered princess are both played by Erica Schuller, who sings them with clarion purity. The Snow Dragon itself is represented by a powerful dramatic soprano (Cassandra Black) and a thirty-foot-long paper puppet.
Ozawa’s staging (the set design is by William Boles, lighting by David Gipson) uses simple, iconic effects—a large suspended ring to indicate the passage between the two worlds, a small mobile platform that allows the action to shift between Marx’s office and Billie’s home—requiring us to use our imagination to construct the fantasy world of The Fallen Country. And Sucharitkul’s music shifts appropriately as well: dreamy Debussy-like textures suggest the ever-shifting worlds of the imagination, and the sound of a Mahler-ish village band signals the growing reality of the circus ring where the story reaches its climax. It’s stunningly played by the Skylight’s 13-player ensemble, conducted by Viswa Subbaraman.
Ultimately, despite the sonic richness of Sucharitkul’s music, these worlds coexist uneasily, a problem that has roots in the original story. The Snow Dragon wants to be part Ordinary People: dramatically nuanced, probingly psychological—and part Hunger Games: slam-bang fantasy pitting good vs. evil. Separate one from the other, and you find two great scenarios for compelling music theater. The Snow Dragon is at its best when the music is wedded to the emotional ebb and flow of real people—Marx’s probing aria-monologs, or her caring negotiations with the damaged Billie. But taken as a whole, The Snow Dragon seems to be two different operas uneasily coexisting in a single evening.
Photos by Kevin Pauly.