Elvis Costello stumbled across the stage of New York's Town Hall Friday night gripping a newspaper in one hand and a paper-bag-wrapped bottle in the other. He wasn't drunk, but his character sure was -- inebriated from drinking in the sounds of Carmen and Madame Butterfly.
Drunkman is the humble hero of Welcome to the Voice, the one-act opera penned by Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve (music) and psychoanalyst/author Muriel Teodori (words), which made its debut in oratorio as part of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. (This is so far the opera's only scheduled performance).
The action, or lack of it, began with Costello center-stage, flanked by the Brodsky Quartet (who accompanied Costello on 1993's The Juliet Letters), saxophonist Ned Rothenberg and Nieve on the piano, conducting the proceedings. Between swigs, Drunkman told his story in song -- how he used to be a steelworker until he became consumed by music and quit his job to sleep outside the doors of the local opera house. Costello seemed to relish his increasing metamorphosis into an interpreter, this time gleefully forsaking not only his guitar but his lyrics. Much more so than any of the vocalists with whom he shared the stage, Costello smiled, grimaced, contorted and swaggered as he belted out lines like "My lion heart was ripped open by this angel and demon music," which he often read from inside his prop newspaper.
The rest of the story isn't much, consisting of various voices taking the stage to seduce or deter Drunkman from following his overflowing musical heart -- but it sure sounded pretty. Like Costello's, the other male voices were "profane" (the program's word), while the females' were classically trained.
Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith handled the role of Workman, Drunkman's former co-worker who tries in vain via "Dust and Contempt" to talk, er, sing some sense into him. At his best the earnest, silvery-voiced Sexsmith made for a far lovelier opera singer than Costello. However, while Costello was often charmingly off-key (which is the whole point of Costello and Drunkman), Sexsmith's few atonal slipups were noticeable defects.
John Flansburgh (the bespectacled, guitar-playing half of They Might Be Giants) served as the Chief of Police, drawing Nieve's most grating composition "Troublemaker" -- and he turned it up a notch. Shouting lines condemning Drunkman to imprisonment for corrupting other street people, the echoes of Flansburgh's shrill pipes careened around the room long after he took his seat.
As for the woman, they were all perfectly at home in the format. Elsa Higby, Alexandra Picard and Heather Gilles took the stage accompanied by clouds of smoke to portray the Ghosts of Carmen, Butterfly and Norma respectively. And Julie Leibowitch (as Opera Singer) turned in a gorgeous reading of "Don't Touch Him," during which Opera Singer ultimately expresses her love for our pathetic hero.
Then came "Unlikely," well-named because it was Costello's lone duet with his leading lady, and he hammed it up. The entire cast, including Teodori from backstage, joined the two for the final words, "Yes, we know what it is," an affirmation of love and music.
Disparate voices become united, beauty prospers over tedium, and, most importantly, the guy gets the girl. It's not a new story, but from the inspired brain of Nieve, the capable hands of the Brodsky quartet and the unlikely mouth of one Elvis Costello, it's a sublime one.