By its title alone, the choral opera “The Radio Hour” suggests images awash in nostalgia — 1940s families gathered around a talking machine broadcasting the latest single by the Andrews Sisters. But it’s also an experimental mashup of different art forms that sounds quite modern.
Composer Jake Heggie, celebrated for the operas “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick,” has teamed with a frequent collaborator, librettist Gene Scheer, on this unusual work, to be performed by the Minneapolis choral group VocalEssence this weekend with Heggie in attendance. Inspired in part by both “Alice in Wonderland” and Dorothy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” dreams from “The Wizard of Oz,” the show features versatile actor Christina Baldwin in a nonspeaking role, with her thoughts and emotions instead expressed by the singers.
“A chorus is used to standing still and producing a full range of beautiful sound, while operas require drama and interaction,” said Heggie in a recent interview, explaining how he and Scheer came up with the concept. “We had to create a story where it would make sense for the singers to participate. Their voices represent her interior and exterior worlds.”
Baldwin plays an unhappy middle-aged woman disillusioned with her life, dully going through the motions of daily drudgery. Some of the choristers are the negative voices incessantly chiming inside her head, while others beckon to her from the radio. Singers even play the furniture in her room, with bodies comprising a chair, a lamp and a mirror.
“She’s at her wit’s end, so she turns on the radio for solace,” Heggie said. “But the radio can be sympathetic or antagonizing. At one point she hits it, and it opens up and she steps inside to this ethereal place, and suddenly she’s on this magical journey of possibility and transformation.”
While all the music is original, “it will sound familiar,” Heggie said. “There’s an old swing tune, a bossa-nova samba like Doris Day used to do, some ad jingles, including one of those irritating kinds with the disclaimers at the end, and a rap number. If you’ve never heard a choir do rap, it’s really something.”
Heggie, who has also composed an opera version of the Graham Greene literary classic “The End of the Affair” and is working on one based on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” grew up in Ohio listening to all kinds of music. He considers himself a theater composer, and recalls the early profound influences of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”
“I didn’t discover opera till I was in my 20s,” he said. “But musicals were so important to me for the storytelling. That combination of music, words and drama is so stimulating.”
Although he’s never worked with the Minnesota Opera, Heggie’s creative sensibilities seem right in tune with that company’s New Works Initiative, emphasizing operas based on relatively modern stories such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” which premiered last week and closes March 15. His next work, “Great Scott,” is an original-story comic opera with a libretto by Terrence McNally set to premiere this fall in Dallas.
“It’s set in a large American city with a struggling but respected opera company and a thriving pro-football team,” he said. “There’s a premiere on the same night that the Super Bowl is happening across town. So there’s a theme of why we struggle so much for art when it doesn’t really fit into the pop-culture formula of today, because we want to hold onto something meaningful from the past.”
Which brings us back to “The Radio Hour” — automatically old-timey by virtue of the device mentioned in the title.
“People don’t depend on the radio like they used to, so it’s nostalgic,” Heggie said. “But it’s also a piece that touches young people who feel shut out by the world because there’s so much noise going on around us all the time.”