caitlin mathes

May Day Worker’s Cabaret preview: Singing truth to power

Diverse performances of music from past and present highlight new annual concert "devoted to honoring labor and promoting equality and social justice"

Editor’s note: This Sunday, Portland’s Vie de Boheme cafe hosts what Portland composer Christopher Corbell hopes to be the first in an annual series of May Day performances. Featuring Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus, the brilliant Portland band Three for Silver, and former Portland Opera resident artist Caitlin Mathes, May Day Worker’s Cabaret seems to draw a connection between the music and theater of the great early 20th century radical artists Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Hanns Eisler and new music created in today’s age of rising inequality. ArtsWatch asked Corbell about the show and the philosophy that informs it.

Creating the Cabaret

I’ve always been inspired by Bertolt Brecht as a poet and dramaturge who had the guts to say something vital to the human village with his art. One night I was hanging out with members of Three for Silver, and we started listening to a lot of this stuff — Nina Simone singing “Pirate Jenny,” Dave Van Ronk singing songs from [The Rise and Fall of the City of] Mahagonny and I had this eureka moment that a Brecht/Weill production with Three for Silver centering the orchestra would be fantastic.

Three for Silver

Three for Silver (L to R: Greg Allison, Willo Sertain, Lucas Warford)

Well — that’s a big project! I think we should do it someday. In the meantime, I thought maybe we could just do a gig together and mix in some of these songs as a theme, appropriate to the international 5/1 labor holiday and also to our looming political primaries. The idea grew into a cabaret when I reached out to Caitlin Mathes, a fantastic performer who brings a lot of fire to the songs of Weill and Eisler. Caitlin met Three for Silver when they were both on The Late Now and also did some Eisler and Weill performances with Classical Revolution PDX when I was involved with that group and she was with Portland Opera. So once we all started talking the ball got rolling and these collaborative pieces just kind of fell into place.

Three for Silver’s sets will be mostly original, and then they’ll also do some Brecht/Weill covers and participate on some group songs. I love their sound and live energy, the way they structure their songs and medleys, and their image-rich lyrics. I hope this show brings them new fans!

I’m going to be performing one short set of Brecht covers, including reading some of Brecht’s poetry, and then doing a second-act set that’s all my own poetry, some recited and some set to music. My original songs are part of the Sonnets project, songs of original sonnets set for guitar, voice, and cello. Sonja Myklebust (of Portland Cello Project and Pacific Cello Quartet) will be playing the cello parts.

I’m pretty excited to share one of the brand new songs, “The Last Dive Bar,” which is about the way unbridled big-money development is changing Portland, especially with dive bars we know and love shutting down due to rent hikes and such. It’s perhaps the least “classical”-sounding song I’ve written for the project. It’s basically a honky-tonk country waltz, in iambic pentameter. With cello as fiddle.

Caitlin Mathes will be doing all her own selected repertoire, mostly Weill and Eisler, but who knows — if we can make this annual maybe she’ll come back next year and we can collaborate on some originals that fit the theme. I like the idea of working with singers and setting texts that are meaningful to them but which aren’t set to music yet.

There are also a couple of rowdy audience-participation numbers in the program.


Ryan MacPherson (l) and the rest of the ensemble cast of Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Ryan MacPherson (l) and the rest of the ensemble cast of Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.


For about the first 15 minutes, I was prepared to hate Postcard from Morocco. But thanks mostly to fresh, spontaneous sounding performances, and to composer Dominick Argento’s inability to tolerate writing obscure atonal music for very long, it won me over. You get the strong impression of a composer who wants his performers and his audience to enjoy themselves.

Still, this Postcard didn’t win me to the extent that I now understand why it is so frequently performed. Both musically and as a piece of theater, it feels very dated to its self-consciously cryptic early ‘70s origin — the beginning of the seemingly endless trend in the arts toward throwing something on the stage and expecting the audience to accept it as meaningful even if you haven’t the first idea what you meant by it. I’m willing to climb on board if I receive early evidence that I’m in good hands — that the librettist/playwright/painter, etc. is crazy like a fox rather than lazy like a fox. Librettist John Donahue falls into the lazy camp, Argento into the crazy — and that’s what makes this opera work to the extent that it does.


Caitlin Mathes is Vixen Sharp Ears in OTO's "The Cunning Little Vixen." Photo: Aralani Photography.

Caitlin Mathes is Vixen Sharp Ears in OTO’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Photo: Aralani Photography.


From almost shut down to sold out, “The Cunning Little Vixen” began its four-day run July 24 of charming pitch-perfect moments under the creeping twilight at Sauvie Island’s Wild Goose Farm.

With its own chickens and likely a fox, the farm fits Opera Theater Oregon’s knack for nailing offbeat venues. Now in its eighth shoestring-budget year of making alt-music for the open-minded operagoer, OTO once again pushed the envelope and satisfied the law: after losing its first week of performances when a flip-flopping land use regulator withdrew its earlier approval, the resilient company moved the opera outside the barn and performed in plein air.

Anything is possible, accessible and adorable, this performance proves, including ticket prices at $20.

Star power comes with Portland Opera’s former Resident Artist Caitlin Mathes singing the central role of Vixen Sharp Ears. We’ve heard the attractive, versatile soprano as Kate Pinkerton in Portland Opera’s “Madama Butterfly and this spring as the company’s title character in “Rinaldo.” She plays her rosy-cheeked “Vixen” role disarmingly naturally and flirtatiously, swishing her big red quilted tail and showing us her ability to stand in metaphorically for foxy human lovers. She sings well, too, perhaps best with Corvallis mezzo soprano Rachel Hauge as Golden Mane the Fox, who has a rich voice and cool stage presence.

The opera runs a fast-paced 110 minutes, with one intermission, and packs in enough quirkiness to appeal to most ages. OTO knows hooking kids is a good idea (the company’s marketing tagline is “Making Opera Safe for America”) and the production uses young performers well, including Sylvia Romero as the Young Vixen and the diminutive 8-year-old Greta Boelling as Frog and Fox Cub. Greta’s dad, tenor John Boelling, sings the Schoolmaster and Mosquito; mom Cynthia Boelling performs Owl and Hen. This is one cozy family affair, which fits the bill for the relaxed production.

The kid actors are fun to watch, as are other singer/actors interpreting a host of animals including hens, a rooster, hedgehog, woodpecker, cricket and grasshopper, to name a few. Performers mimic critters’ “voices” and body language with accuracy and humor – note Helen Funston as the Crested Hen and long-legged Deer. Wearing clues of fanciful costumes and head pieces (fussy feathers for hens, etc.), they all do a commendable job expressing their animals. Who doesn’t love watching the personification of fauna?

Professional dancers (a first for OTO) directed by choreographer Agnieszka Laska enhance the show with their interpretations of Butterfly, Fly and Ladybug. Nikki Leopold dances as the Dragonfly, a role with a bit more weight than those of the other dancers.

The Barn at Wild Goose Farm

The Barn at Wild Goose Farm

Czech composer Leos Janacek, a master at capturing folklore and folk music in his work, said he listened to animals for years and memorized their speech. “I’m at home with them,” he wrote in the early 1920s when “Vixen” premiered. As the program notes, his opera captures the “frenzied activity and peaceful contemplation” that marks country life. We see two generations of foxes and three of frogs as well as poachers, preachers and innkeepers.

Energetic OTO artistic director Erica Melton expertly directs the six-person ensemble: flute, clarinet, viola, violin, violoncello, harp, xylophone, glockenspiel and reed organ. The complexity of the music – not always harmonious – and the impressionistic libretto (how did the Vixen take over the Badger’s den? Whoops, missed that. She cunningly pees on it.) could be challenging if  “Vixen’s” whimsical tone hadn’t been just right. Thank you, Clara Weishahn, for spot-on sensitive stage direction.

The production’s theatrical aspects proved stronger than most of the singing, but as OTO regular Erik Hundtoft effective turn as the Gamekeeper proved, hefty singing voices aren’t needed for an audience of 100 that can sit close up to the small stage. Deac Guidi as Harasta the Poacher has a big voice, as do Mathes and Hauge, but volume isn’t key to the production’s appeal.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” continues July 25, 26, and 27. Though officially sold out, volunteers might be able to trade work for free entry. On Saturday, there is a farm-to table pre-show dinner, but don’t bet on getting tickets. Sold out.

Note: on Thursday, July 25 at 7 pm, you can console yourself for missing the performance of OTO’s current show by listening to a re-broadcast of its previous one, Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” on Portland’s all classical radio station, KQAC, online or over the air.

Angela Allen is a Portland writer, photographer and teacher. She regularly reviews opera.

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