When composer Marcus Hummon – playwright and successful country music songwriter – was bedridden following surgery, he asked his wife to bring him his guitar, his keyboard, and the complete works of Shakespeare. Under the potent influence of creativity, boredom, pain and the Bard, he began writing a libretto and music. Surrender Road is the result.
This world premiere production by the Nashville Opera tells the tale of a boxer, Manuel, who is conflicted about taking money to throw a bout. He does so for the sake of his beloved trainer and father-figure, Willie, whose life is threatened by gangsters. In the depths of despair, Manuel meets Emily, who has come to New York seeking success as an artist only to see her work savaged by critics at her first gallery showing. Manny and Emily meet at their lowest points and – as in most stories featuring a sympathetic and lonely, yet attractive young couple – immediately fall in love.
As a tale of love and disappointment, Surrender Road is fairly straight forward. What lifts it from a pedestrian level are passages from Shakespeare interwoven seamlessly with the contemporary lyrics. These add depth, transforming the story from an individual tale of two losers/lovers to a more universal lament on the nature of success and failure, love and betrayal.
Musically, the opera is highly melodic and accessible. Strings, keyboards and saxophone produce a mixture of styles from classical, jazz and Broadway to soul and pop. The diverse styles mostly hold together and serve the story well. While pleasurable for the audience, this mix is a challenge for the vocalists who must sometimes change styles in the middle of a song or even a line.
Of the four principals, tenor Hugo Vera impresses as the struggling boxer. He is convincing both vocally and as an actor. Tenor Richard Drews, as Manuel’s trainer, is also up to task. As Emily, mezzo-soprano Pilar Cragan has less classical experience and seems much more comfortable in the more “pop” portion of her parts. The same can be said for bass Alonzo Murphy-Johnson as low-grade mobster Vito, although as director John Hoomes jokes, he has the raw ability to “sing notes so low that dogs can’t hear them.”
One standout feature of Surrender Road is the clever use of an eighteen member ensemble. They serve as a Greek chorus in some scenes and take on a variety of roles, from ring girls to bar patrons to fight fans, in others.
Ron Kadri’s set consists primarily of metal rods that evoke the superstructure of the Brooklyn Bridge, along with a tilted stage area that transforms from boxing ring to bridge. The metal rods prove very adaptable, serving as boxing ring posts or table stands in a nightclub as needed. The effect, when combined with Barry Steele’s excellent lighting and video projection, is surprisingly effective.
The piece is ably directed by John Hoomes, who was excited to have the opportunity to work directly with a living composer. Hummon was highly involved in the production and rehearsal process, making changes and additions as need arose. An example is the late addition of a touching saxophone lament in Act 1.
Surrender Road is Hummon’s first through-composed work, although he has written six musical plays. According to Hummon, opera is “ultimately something you ought to try if you are a composer. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in music.”