Composer Jason Cady is a key figure in the current renaissance of opera in New York City. A co-founder (with Aaron Segel and Matthew Welch) of the presenting organization Experiments in Opera, he is a part of the reclaiming of the form (is this the sort of occasion where we use the prefix "nu"?) for contemporary settings and modern technology.
What stood out most about Cady's previous one-act (or CD-length) work, Post-Madonna Prima Donna, was the mix of humor, wordplay and vernacular, neither of which are primary concerns in traditional libretti. Humor is also a big part of his short zombie setting "Nostalgia Kills You," recently presented by EIO in an All Saints Day concert. Plain speech and comedy are also present on the CD of his Happiness is the Problem, however Cady has built more of a narrative arc in this 43-minute work. The story is a classic monkey's-paw, careful-what-you-wish-for bit of moral irony, revolving around the discovery of a chemical extract that can instill happiness in the user. The heroines, three Brooklyn roommates, are young, smart and foul-mouthed, their parts sung by sopranos Erin Flannery and Deanna Neil and mezzo soprano Lisa Komara. The music is fast-paced and propulsive while managing to carry on prolonged themes and development, energetically played by a 13-piece ensemble including bassoonist Katie Young, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, violist Jessica Pavone and the composer on clarinet and synthesizer.
It's a dense through narrative that won't work for passive listening, but will pay off for the time invested while willfully undermining itself not only with its language but with a persistent and hilariously clunky laugh track that recurs throughout the recording. For the opera-reticent, the vocals move at a steady clip and the sopranos aren't played as piercingly as they might have been. Worries about that loaded o-word shouldn't be allowed to be an obstacle. Happiness is the Problem is upbeat, exciting and unusual, and is well worth the risk.
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