There’s a certain experience that you’re probably familiar with at this point in the pandemic: You log into a Zoom meeting and are greeted by your own horrendous face. You needed a haircut a month ago, and it shows. The cruel, uncontrollable lighting does you no favors. Beauty is lost in virtual reality. Be that as it may, you are happy to see some other faces after weeks of seclusion either with yourself as your sole company or (even worse?) with a troupe of raucous family members.
This is the mood with which Fort Worth Opera’s Bernadette’s Cozy Book Nook (with a libretto by Mark Campbell, and music by Joe Illick) opens, and it captures the all-too familiar atmosphere perfectly as the titular character (Brenda Harris) starts a Zoom meeting and quickly reckons with the struggles of technology. She is hosting her book club’s first meeting since the beginning of the pandemic, and is eager to have a successful virtual meeting. Bernadette is concerned by how uncomely her neck looks on camera; she worries that she should have procured a more erudite background. Haven’t we all had similar Zoom-induced anxieties? Only one thing is different between Bernadette’s experience and our own: She is singing her anxieties in opera.
Initially, opera seems a humorously over-the-top choice for something as quotidian (now) as a Zoom book club meeting. But as the audience (in their living rooms, streaming along on YouTube) reckons with the imbalance of zealous operatic voices and ordinary Zoom interactions, we slowly realize that opera is exactly what’s needed to point out something we’ve all forgotten. This isn’t normal. This isn’t how book clubs should be conducted. This shouldn’t be the only way we see our friends. This shouldn’t even be the way in which we, the audience, are consuming glorious opera music. We are so used to every moment of our lives happening on Zoom that we’ve forgotten that Zoom isn’t the ideal medium for any of these things — uncommon as opera is in everyday life, it is the very presence of opera here that brings us all back to reality.
So what happens in this little slice of humorous, operatic pseudo-reality? As Bernadette’s friends appear in separate little Zoom windows, they introduce themselves and their newfound struggles. Bernadette, who quickly reveals herself to be quite self-obsessed, is busier than ever with Zoom meetings (which makes her technological ineptitude somewhat surprising — perhaps she isn’t as busy as she claims?); Emmett (William Burden) is perfecting his Italian cooking but lamenting the vacation to Italy he might have been on; Eleanor (Gabrielle Gilliam), Bernadette’s niece and the only, albeit reluctant, book-club member under 50, is about to graduate from Yale, but all of her prospects have been stamped out by the pandemic; Marcia’s (Joyce Castle) son, his entire family and all of his pets are crowding her house and driving her insane; Larry (Donnie Ray Albert) is taking time to tend to the garden left floundering since his wife’s death. Between these five characters, there is somebody for each of us to relate to; their situations are also ripe for comedy.
The characters spend so long talking about themselves one could scarcely call their meeting a book club. But finally they bring up the month’s reading selection, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book. Not only does Bernadette offer a redundant summary of the book even though the book club members have supposedly already read it (if this libretto has an issue, it’s that it uses too many of is sparse 40 minutes on exposition for the audience’s sake), the book also isn’t that central to the story. Although they discuss it briefly, the book mostly serves as a pathway to a stormy political shouting match.
This is the powerful crescendo of the short opera. Rather than use the book club as a conduit for constructive political conversation, its members (well, one power-hungry member in particular) ban talk of politics altogether, preferring to pretend that everything is peaceful than to reckon with the possibility of insurrection, or even friendly conflict. This opera takes place on April 27, 2020, about a month before the killing of George Floyd (to which the opera alludes). The determination of certain characters to silence political debate emphasizes that the issues of race in America didn’t start on May 25 with Floyd’s death, and they won’t end after a summer of protesting — a central aspect of the problem is the ignorance of individual citizens who refuse to address the very issues of which they are a part. This opera demonstrates that important political point deftly and with great humor.
But the opera doesn’t just chastise people who don’t want to bother with major political issues and the state of our country. It also returns to the particular human problems we’re all facing, not because of politics, not even because of the pandemic, but because we are humans living in a challenging world. Book Nook reminds us that solidarity (even with those with whom we disagree) and compassion can help us to find our way in the midst of grief, rage, and fear.
Thus, behind the awkwardness of Zoom and the unavoidability of political strife, this sweet, funny little opera gives us a glimmer of hope, one that we may have, by now, lost sight of. “This too shall pass,” the characters promise to themselves as they hope things will return to normal. But they also aim to find beauty in the midst of a difficult political climate and health crisis. Thankfully, this opera is the means to its own end: supported by humor, sprinkled with truth, Bernadette’s Cozy Book Nook is beautiful in spite of the strangeness of Zoom as a stage for opera. It exhibits the truth of its core message: there is beauty to be found at all times, even now.
Bernadette’s Cozy Book Nook streams until Jan. 24.
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