Kassandra is a new chamber opera from Anthony Brandt (composer) and Neena Beber (librettist). It’s an updating of the classic myth of Kassandra who was cursed by Apollo to always be right but never believed for having rejected his advances. In the new version Kassandra is an AI scientist who builds a computer with great predictive power, particularly with respect to climate. Apollo is a venture capitalist who bankrolls Kassandra then fires her and trashes her reputation when she rejects his unwelcome sexual overtures. So #metoo meets climate change denialism. Prophets, especially female ones, shouldn’t get in the way of profits or embarrass powerful males.
The story is told in five scenes. First Apollo meets Kassandra at a TED talk and recruits her. Then she successfully demonstrates her predictive computer, Kythera Futurae, to Apollo and his skeptical sidekicks but when Apollo tries to seduce her she walks out. Scene 3 is the classic attempt by HR to hush things up which ends with Kassandra being fired. In Scene 4 Apollo and co put her down in public and in discussions with potential employers implying that she’s a difficult and irrational woman and, ultimately, a fake. In the final scene ancient Kassandra and modern Kassandra meet on the sea shore to compare notes. It’s tightly plotted and very plausible. In fact I think I’ve witnessed pretty much every aspect of the corporate behaviour described!
It’s scored for piano, percussion, violin, viola, cello, flute and two clarinets which provides plenty of colour. The vocal line is mostly written to support the text and isn’t very fancy except for some of the ensemble writing in the fairly chaotic scene 4. As a result the text is clearly intelligible throughout. The musical interest comes mainly from the instrumental accompaniment which is energetic, busy and colourful. It’s similar to quite a lot of contemporary American opera writing but it’s a pretty good example of the genre.
The performances are very good. Soprano Penelope Shumate, as Kassandra, has a clear, attractive voice and she’s convincing. Bass-baritone Christopher Besch sounds quite imposing as Apollo and is especially effective when he turns nasty. Mezzo Megan Berti, tenor Albert Stanley and bass-baritone Aidan Smerud play the various sidekicks and corporate drones to good effect with Berti doubling up as ancient Kassandra at the end. Eiki Isomura conducts and i think can be credited with the sense of energy that infuses the performance.
The recording was made in December 2021 at Stude Hall at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston TX. It’s excellent; clear and crisp with good dynamic range. I listened on 48kHz/24 bit WAV files. It’s available to download in that format or as .mp3 or from the usual streaming services. There’s more information and links to buy here. The link also takes you to the comprehensive on-line documentation including the full libretto. All in all, an enjoyable and thought provoking 45 minutes or so.
Catalogue number: Navona Records NV6438