John & Jen is a modern chamber opera about family relationships, recently produced at Le Chat Noir. All the dialogue was sung to the accompaniment of a three-piece ensemble: Alan Payne (piano), Helen Gillet (cello) and Kevin Estoque (percussion). Richard Arnold (John) and Jessie Terrebonne (Jen) had their work cut out for them in the two-hour show but sailed through the demanding melodies, including vocal elaborations like contrapuntal duets, with grace and confidence.
In the first act, John and Jen are siblings growing up during the '50s with a demanding father who is a World War II veteran and stern Cold Warrior, though we never meet him. At 5 years old, John would have died for a Mickey Mantle bat, but as he grows up, he wants to emulate his father and goes off to war. Jen follows a different path, rolling along with the fads of the 1960s: hippies, bellbottoms and LSD. Eventually, she flees to Canada with her lover so he can avoid the draft. Act One ends with Jen mourning over her brother's flag-draped coffin.
In act Two, Jen is the mother of a baby she's named John. She is determined to make up for what she considers her failure to protect her baby brother. She even gives her son the baseball glove her brother John cherished. "Hitting a home run," in this Americana world, remains the metaphor for success in life. The national pastime seems to be an ideé fixe with the male characters, but these mundane details often don't suit the operatic ambitions of the score.
Director Nick Thompson kept things moving along well, and keyboardist Alan Payne gets a tip of the hat for what must have been an exhausting stint as musical director. — Dalt Wonk