Staying Alive

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

Whether you call them the living dead, zombies, or cannibal corpses, they lumber, groan, and hunger for your sweet, tender flesh. They have haunted the pop imagination ever since George Romero’s B movie classic Night of the Living Dead launched a whole genre of movies, television series, graphic novels, and computer games. Can a low-budget movie rise to the level of grand opera? Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-ready Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik was not afraid to find out. She commissioned Night of the Living Opera, with music by Andrew Dewey and libretto by Josh Perkins, which had a concert reading, appropriately, on Halloween week.

Perkins is formerly of the puppet collective Angry Young Men, who, while being neither all that young anymore and including women (and seemingly not that angry), have performed their kooky Muppet-inspired version of the film for over 15 years in Greater Milwaukeeland. Along with his wife Julianne, who has a recent Masters degree in music performance, he obviously still has the story on his mind, and they were willing to give it the operatic treatment.  

People who might have come to the performance expecting a chorus of, say, “Cervelli Cervelli Deliziosi”  (brains, delicious brains), or an aria consisting of terrified screaming were surprised to see that the new work was presented with nary a wink at the ludicrous conceit. There was only one furtive zombie groan, issued, unless I’m mistaken, from the throat of Shayne Stelige. For the rest, composer Dewey is content to restrict his chorus to tasteful, if sinister, chanting. Now and then a couple of life-sized puppets lurch forward to menace the singers, but in a staged recital like this there is little opportunity for action; those scenes were narrated by Mr. Perkins from the side of the stage. The score, performed by Music Director Anne Van Deusen on keyboard and Kevin Eberle on Double Bass, with Dewey conducting,  conveys a fine sense of unnatural unease, and the libretto accurately recreates the story of the movie, with the important enhancement of the character Barbara, feelingly sung by Elizabeth Blood, who becomes a de facto heroine and sole survivor of the undead onslaught. This gives the story a bit of uplift, in stark contrast to the film’s unrelieved nihilism.

In a world where we face existential perils from every direction, and ideologies that should have died long ago are resurrecting before our very eyes to threaten us, the zombie analogy seems a bit too on the nose. At least Barbara’s journey reminds us of the stoic lesson that, while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can still master our own fears.

The cast did their best to dignify the material, and the exercise is over in an entertaining hour, but one can’t quite shake the feeling of a missed opportunity. The whole point of the movie is to fulfill our prurient desire to see hordes of undead burned, bludgeoned, and shot in the head as they chomp away at the living; to stare into the void with a knowing Nietzschean smirk. Some things are designed to be gloriously, unapologetically trashy: just ask John Waters. A little camp would go a long way towards giving the performance more bite.

Or maybe it was all just a Halloween punk, like serving Spam straight-faced on a doily.  If that was the case, then bravo!  Night of the Living Opera will be presented in a fully staged production in Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 2023 season. Bring on the zombie chorus!