Opera Review | 'Two Corners' 

click to enlarge Sopranos Kate Johnson and Kearstin Piper Brown as Sarah and Florine in the world premiere of B.E. Boykin's opera "Two Corners" on June 29, 2024. - KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Sopranos Kate Johnson and Kearstin Piper Brown as Sarah and Florine in the world premiere of B.E. Boykin's opera "Two Corners" on June 29, 2024.
World premieres in opera are always cause for celebration, in part because they require years of planning, and the process of developing a work into canon could take a lifetime (or sometimes, longer).

Finger Lakes Opera’s premiere of  composer B.E. Boykin and librettist Jarrod Lee's "Two Corners," which opened at MCC Mainstage Theatre on Friday, represents not only the culmination of hard work, but a synthesis of art and social justice.

Boykin’s score is tender and nostalgic, but not so driven by the past that it skirts the emotional honesty demanded in the present by librettist Jarrod Lee’s direct language in the text. Lee’s distillation of this story — based on the real-life experiences of the composer’s grandmother, Florine, who grew up Black alongside her white friend Sarah in 1950s Alabama — bears the implicit message that true unity is only possible when we share in one other’s pain and even accept culpability for how our actions or inactions contributed to that pain.

The central conflict of the opera lies in Sarah’s inability to see Florine’s experience of racial injustice for what it really is, because accepting that reality would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Their differing perspectives are triggered by the same object — an old radio they listened to as children. An early moment in the story is especially telling.

“It brings me joy,” Sarah says of the radio.

Florine’s response is loaded: “It brings me back.”

click to enlarge Sopranos Kearstin Piper Brown and Kate Johnson as Florine and Sarah. - KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Sopranos Kearstin Piper Brown and Kate Johnson as Florine and Sarah.
Boykin’s harmonic language is straightforward and easily understood — a big plus in a storytelling medium where convoluted layers of meaning are more often than not the norm. Throughout, the music has an enduring lyrical sensibility. In key moments in the drama, Boykin turns to bits of vintage pop sounds and even gospel textures.

The entire cast exhibits excellent vocal control and an ability to tap into the dramatic tone of the opera with like intensity and a shared commitment to expressing the characters’ complicated humanity.

As Florine, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (who is also a fill-in host for WXXI Classical) expertly articulated the quiet sadness of a woman who has to process adversity alone.

The brilliant paradox of the story lies in Florine’s recollection that the woman whom she has considered her best friend isn’t there to support her. Sarah — played with earnestness by soprano Kate Johnson —can’t relate to the reality of the segregated school system or the dangers of being a Black child amid racial unrest.

Perhaps the highlight of the opera occurs in the first of its four scenes, when Brown sings Florine’s stunningly beautiful aria about her relationship to her children with strength, conviction and the vocal acrobatics necessary to pull off Boykin’s challenging melodic jumps.

Other poignant moments in “Two Corners” are delivered by members of the supporting cast. Mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell is mesmerizing as Florine’s mother, Julia, singing with a rich, unpretentious tone. Her exhortation to a young Florine to “Be careful” comes across as a kind of stirring lullaby.

click to enlarge Kate Johnson, Kearstin Piper Brown and bass Joshua Conyers in the final scene of Finger Lakes Opera's world premiere production of "Two Corners" on JUne 28, 2024. - KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Kate Johnson, Kearstin Piper Brown and bass Joshua Conyers in the final scene of Finger Lakes Opera's world premiere production of "Two Corners" on JUne 28, 2024.
As Florine’s husband Hollis, baritone Joshua Conyers is warm and endearing. His climactic performance of the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art,” in a beautiful arrangement by the composer, was transcendent.

The story is simple, the meaning complicated — and  under the fluid musical direction of FLO Artistic Director Gerard Floriano from the podium and Kimille Howard’s clear stage direction, the opera flies by at a brisk pace. Clocking in at about an hour and only four scenes, the work could have been longer. Then again, long is a dangerous thing for an opera to be.

click to enlarge KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • KELLY KESTER PHOTOGRAPHY

In this world premiere performance, Finger Lakes Opera presents a polished opera ready for multiple productions at opera companies across the country.

And while many arts organizations aspire to affect change with diversity efforts, FLO deserves props for actually putting it into practice. The company commissioned a story by Black artists and with Black audiences in mind, and the result is an uncommonly diverse opera audience. Here’s hoping FLO continues on this trajectory.

One encore performance of "Two Corners" will take place on Sunday, June 30 at 2 p.m. For more information and tickets: fingerlakesopera.org.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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