Nature Vs. Nurture: Opera Fayetteville considers life in ‘Habitat’

Nature Vs. Nurture: Opera Fayetteville considers life in ‘Habitat’

Matthew Aucoin’s contemporary opera “Second Nature” was commissioned to be performed at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago — clearly defining to the composer a small, short piece written with kids in mind. Set a hundred years from now, it’s the story of two children who discover there is a world outside the artificially enclosed “Habitat” where they’ve been confined all their lives.

In a video interview on YouTube, Aucoin says “inspiration on a deeper level [came] from my own awareness that we’re messing up the planet.” Nature, he says, has been a constant for writers throughout human history — “the untouchable, superhuman force.” So what does it do to our myths when we realize we may have wounded it beyond healing?

Aucoin’s opera comes to Fayetteville May 7 as part of the Walton Arts Center’s Artosphere celebration. It’s being presented by Opera Fayetteville, founded by Tamara Ryan in 2012.

“I was over the moon when I learned there might be a space for Opera Fayetteville [at the] Artosphere Festival this year, but I was worried it would be a real challenge to find a contemporary chamber opera with an environmental theme,” says Ryan, herself a celebrated soprano who mostly performs in Boston. “As it turns out, Matthew Aucoin’s ‘Second Nature’ fit the bill perfectly!”

Brian Skoog, an American tenor known for his “strong voice” and “fine lyric tenor,” portrays Jake, one of the two youngsters who want to find their way out of “the Habitat,” in the Opera Fayetteville production of Matthew Aucoin’s “Second Nature.” Joining him as Lydia is Heather Jones, who critics say performs classical and contemporary repertoire with “mischievous freshness and enthusiasm.” Jones is returning to Fayetteville after appearing in the 2018 Opera in Bloom festival. (Courtesy Photos)

Starring Heather Jones and Brian Skoog, with stage direction by Laura Shatkus, music direction by Brendon Shapiro, and accompanied by members of the Opera Fayetteville Orchestra, “it’s not just interesting from an environmental perspective; it involves themes of emergence after a period of confinement while still holding out hope for the future,” Ryan says. “Something we can all relate to now, I think! It’s also hilarious, profound, and deeply touching. I’m so impressed with all the emotional range that is packed into a single hour.”

While Ryan spends most of her time in Boston, she says “Northwest Arkansas and contemporary opera are two of the great loves of my life, and it’s been my great joy to get to combine them these last 10 years.

“When we left [Northwest Arkansas] after the last opera in 2020, we had no idea how long we’d have to be away,” she says. “It really made us realize how much we yearned to be here. We’re an artistic family, so our schedule varies a lot, but generally I get to do more singing in Boston. When here in Arkansas, I’m more focused on making opera happen from behind the scenes, which is fulfilling in another kind of way. I love connecting with audiences through this very special medium — whether onstage or backstage or on my laptop!”

“Children’s operas that adults can enjoy just as much as their kids are rare enough these days,” critic John von Rhein wrote about “Second Nature” in the Chicago Tribune in August 2015. “Aucoin’s entertaining yet thoughtful environmental parable deserves to make the rounds.

“One of the most in-demand composers of his generation, Aucoin knows how to put together operas that performers are grateful to perform but don’t talk down musically to the listener,” von Rhein continued. “‘Second Nature’ was my first encounter with his freely tonal musical idiom, and I found the score absorbing and inventive, with its suggestions of Debussy here, neoclassical Stravinsky there, but all of it very much Aucoin’s own.”

Lyric bass Michael Colman, recently hailed by Opera News for “fielding a fine, dark bass-baritone,” portrays a talking Bonobo who entices Lydia and Jake to eat from his fruit tree — and discover what might be outside their manufactured environment. (Courtesy Photo)

“I’m not naive when it comes to the impact of fairy tales on how we actually behave,” Aucoin says. “They tell us about our flaws but [that] doesn’t actually change them. Of course, I hope it deepens people’s awareness — and I hope it introduces people to the artform in a way that feels fresh.”



Opera Fayetteville:

‘Second Nature’

WHEN — 8 p.m. May 7

WHERE — Starr Theater at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $25

INFO — 443-5600,

Categories: Theater