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REVIEW: Too Much of a Good Thing in A Parable of the Sower (O’Shaughnessy)

A scene from the opera A Parable of the Sower at its Abu Dhabi premiere. Photo by Waleed Shah.

The first 45 minutes of the opera A Parable of the Sower, presented in concert form at the O’Shaughnessy last night, are absolutely sensational. If the evening had ended then and there, the audience would have gone home happy. If it had ended 60 minutes in, much the same. Performing all two hours of the glorious music without intermission, however, was really too much of a good thing.

There’s a saying that theatre critics’ ideal show is “80 minutes, no intermission“. Writers and directors often espouse the virtues of not having an intermission, while audiences are more likely to argue for the virtues of a stretch and bathroom break. This isn’t a debate limited to opera – it’s something that affects spoken theatre, music concerts, and even some mega-movies. (The film Avengers: Endgame, which also opened last night, plays for three hours with no intermission at most U.S. cinemas – and has inspired no-spoilers guides for which scenes to miss to take take a piss, so to speak.) There are plenty of experiences where people sit for two hours, but with many stage works the intensity as well as practical considerations reward breaks.

More on that in a little. One of the great strengths of Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s score is the sheer variety of musical styles that showcase the cast’s many vocal talents. With the emotional gamut of A Parable of the Sower‘s collapsing (and literally igniting) world, it feels natural that such an array of feelings, worries, and angst would emerge in so many ways. That the songs feel part of a complete work despite their diversity is a respectable thing, and singers like Tariq Al-Sabir and Tsilala Brock do much with each song.

Endurance, however, has its trials. While he majority of the audience stayed in their seats for last night’s performance at the O’Shaughnessy, by the 75-minute mark a steady stream of people were heading in and out of the side doors to answer nature’s call. A sold-out hall, a late start on account of the crowd, and added seating in the path of traffic did no favors to this particular endurance test. Ears were also challenged by extremely high sound levels – had the performance taken place across the river in Minneapolis, providing earplugs would have been mandatory. And even with professional-grade hearing protection, the concert was still very, very loud.

Octavia E. Butler’s A Parable of the Sower was clearly hotly anticipated and warmly received, and a fully staged (rather than concert) version seems sure to have success. When it next appears, however, an intermission will hopefully not be held hostage to the dream of uninterrupted immersion.

Basil Considine