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The Reef (opera workshop)

Act One of Anthony Davis' new opera based on the 1912 Edith Wharton novel gets a one-night reading at Merkin Hall.

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Erin Reppenhagen as Madame de Chantal, Amanda Simms as Anna de Chantal and Erik Grendahl as George Darrow in a scene from the workshop of Anthony Davis’ “The Reef” at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center on April 10, 2024 (Photo credit: Matt Madison-Clark)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

On April 10, 2024, Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center presented a tantalizing teaser of a musical evening with the world premiere workshop of only the first act of 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis’ new opera, The Reef. With a libretto adapted by Joan Ross Sorkin, from the 1912 novel by Edith Wharton, this was the first time that the work has been adapted for the stage, though it has been filmed as Passion’s Way. The workshop was sponsored by the Berkshire Opera Festival using a cast of emerging artists all of whom were vocally capable of singing the work.

Like much of Davis’ music, what was heard played by principal coach Curtis Serafin on solo piano, was both classical western music and jazz riffs. Discernable influences at this early stage in the opera’s gestation suggest Chopin, William Grant Still and Samuel Barber. For this story which Sorkin has reset in Martinique, 1928, Davis has also used Afro Cuban rhythms to suggest the Caribbean island with its French culture. The lush music will, of course, sound quite different when scored for a full chamber orchestra which Davis envisions including harp and steel drums. In the question and answer talkback that followed the presentation, Sorkin revealed that she changed the setting to Martinique as the novel speaks of a symbolic reef but does not show one. She wanted conflicted widow Anna de Chantal to be looking at a real reef. Davis added that the change of setting is what interested him due to the inclusion of the new racial element which allowed him to also include jazz melodies.

Nicoletta Berry as Sonya, the nursemaid, and Ryan Bryce Johnson as Christophe de Chantal in a scene from the workshop of Anthony Davis’ “The Reef” at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center on April 10, 2024 (Photo credit: Matt Madison-Clark)

Sorkin’s libretto skillfully streamlines Wharton’s story to leave out the Dover and Paris prologue and later French setting and resets the entire opera at the Martinique plantation of Madame de Chantal, Anna’s mother-in-law,  which makes the story more dramatically coherent. American diplomat George Darrow is now sent by his government to visit her rather than invited by Anna, a former friend from New York years before her marriage. Sonya, (previously Sophy), the nursemaid to Anna’s daughter Effie, with whom he has had a brief affair in Paris, is now a biracial French native girl, rather than the Englishwoman in the original novel.

As suggested by Davis, the opera includes a Greek chorus called “The Invisibles,” the unseen plantation workers who both comment on the action as well as fill in pieces of the story. This chorus is made up of a soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sung here by Chantal Freeman, Tesia Kwarteng, Elliott Paige and Markel Reed. The young workshop cast included Erin Reppenhagen as Madame de Chantal, Amanda Simms as Anna, her widowed daughter-in-law, Nicoletta Berry as Sonya, Erik Grendahl as the American diplomat, Ryan Bryce Johnson as young Christophe de Chantal, Anna’s infirm stepson who walks with a cane, and Reed doubling as Lucien, the elderly native butler. In this first act, Simms took the honors with her ravishing lyric soprano in her romantic music, while the slower music of Berry’s Sonya is much more sensual and erotic. Grendhal’s music allows him to be seductive in his scenes with Anna leading to the love story in the second act.

Composer Anthony Davis, librettist Joan Ross Sorkin and Berkshire Opera Festival artistic director Brian Garman at the talk back for the opera workshop of “The Reef” at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center on April 10, 2024 (Photo credit: Matt Madison-Clark)

The Q&A was hosted by Brian Garman, artistic director and co-founder of the Berkshire Opera Festival which sponsored the evening. While Davis is best known for his contemporary-set operas X: The Life and Times of Malcom X which was presented at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time this season, The Central Park Five for which he won his Pulitzer Prize, and Tania, the story of Patricia Hearst, he has also written Amistad set on the notorious 1839 slave ship. This is Sorkin’s second opera following her 2007 Strange Fruit with composer Chandler Carter, adapted from the bestselling novel by Lillian Smith whose title was inspired by the Billie Holiday song. Her libretto for The Reef not only shows her dramatic skill in condensing the Wharton novel but also adds poetic passages for the Caribbean scenery not in the novel. This first hearing of Act I of the new opera bodes well for its future, offering full-bodied music and arias in its score.

The Reef (opera workshop) (April 10, 2024)

Berkshire Opera Festival 2024 Season

Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center, 129 W. 67th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets or information, visit


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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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