Heartbeat Opera’s ‘The Extinctionist’ Offers Commentary With Little Complexity

Heartbeat deserves its reputation for compelling opera theater, but Amanda Quaid’s libretto could have told a much more nuanced story.

Two performers sit, one on the floor and one on a bed, on a stage set to look like a bedroom
Philip Stoddard and Katherine Henly. Russ Rowland

Heartbeat Opera, known for their innovative and often provocative restagings of opera classics, celebrated their company’s tenth season with their first-ever commission: Daniel Schlosberg’s The Extinctionist, which sets Amanda Quaid’s libretto, adapted from her short play of the same name which premiered in 2019.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Sung well by its small cast, briskly directed by Shadi Gaheri, and with beautiful visuals by Kate Noll (sets) and Camilla Tassi (projections), The Extinctionist showed that Heartbeat deserves its reputation for compelling opera theater, but the opera’s sanctimonious libretto and an ill-conceived puppet baby led to an evening more frustrating than triumphant.

As the name suggests, this is an opera about climate change, and more specifically, the decision to have or not to have children in a world that feels like it’s hurtling toward destruction. It starts with a familiar morning scene: a woman doom-scrolling in bed, her anxiety mounting as each apocalyptic image slides by. She and her husband have been trying for a baby for five months, but as their frustration mounts in conjunction with her climate panic, she doubts the ethics of this choice. She considers tubal ligation but ultimately has to confront her fears that she might not have much of a choice after all.

A performer wearing a black sleeveless shirt sings on a stage set to look like the outdoors
Katherine Henly. Russ Rowland

Schlosberg’s music, scored for a large percussion section, electric guitar, piano and violin/viola moves between lush tonality and atonal chaos, with dashes of free jazz, rock and muzak. It had some very strong moments—sly, propulsive rhythms throughout, a memorable extended solo that saw percussionist Katherine Fortunato playing timpani with her right hand and xylophone with her left, some downright lovely writing for the viola—and Schlosberg has a good ear for ensemble vocal writing. Like many new operas, though, the score still struggled with the emotional arc of the vocals. Unlike the shifting textures of the instrumental writing, the solo vocal writing lacked a bit of direction. There are a lot of shouty scenes and a few whispery ones, all at similar levels of intensity: contrast, but not always variety.

But the libretto is the main source of The Extinctionist’s woes. The Extictionist’s reveals its disinterest in specificity as early as the dramatis personae. The characters have no names; they are “Woman,” “Man,” “Friend,” “Doctor” (and later “puppet”). A lack of names is usually an indication that the writer wants us to think of the characters as “everymen”: abstractable and thus relatable. But in the case of this particular conflict, the specifics are where the central question gets interesting. Is it better for the environment not to have children? Probably. Where it gets complicated is when you start adding the “whos” and “buts’ and “what ifs” of real life.   Without them, it feels more like a thought experiment than a narrative.

Quaid’s text presents characters that are either shrilly panicked, domineering or callously indifferent. They don’t so much communicate with one another as they clatter against each other. Early in the piece, the Woman berates her husband for not recycling enough or properly; In another scene, she unleashes what feels like years of pent-up resentment and envy on a pregnant childhood friend for eating cheeseburgers, relying on one-day shipping and booking cheap flights to Cancún. She jokes that her “filter leaks these days. Like the ozone.” She dismisses her husband’s references to larger collective action as a copout, instead favoring a relentlessly individualist view where the burden rests solely on her uterus. In the same breath, she dismisses the possibility of adoption, because it will be too difficult for her to fall in love with a child only to watch them grow up in an always-warming world.

Two performers, one in a tan jacket and one in a green, stand talking
Katherine Henly and Claire Leyden. Russ Rowland

She doesn’t seem aware of the fact that she would face exactly the same issue with a biological child, or that, if she insists on viewing a child primarily in terms of carbon footprint, adoption would be a carbon-neutral choice, since the child would presumably already be here. But to keep this a conflict located in individual choices, the libretto waves off any other possible approach to the climate crisis along with any chance at complex depictions of relationships.

At first, I wondered if The Extinctionist was satirizing a certain type of self-annihilating climate paralysis, but the woman’s husband and friend respond to her with so little decency or humanity that it seems clear that we were meant to be on her side. Her husband is selfish and cruel and observes her near-breakdown with exasperation. He’s also portrayed as heartless for having any feelings at all about his wife’s sudden reversal on the question of children, which felt particularly ungenerous. Her friend, meanwhile, is preening and utterly insensitive in how she talks about her pregnancy with her fertility-challenged friend. There are lots of smug “you wouldn’t understand” moments and self-satisfied hands on her belly. Like the husband, she’s also a strawman.

In one of the opera’s few moments of extended character development—an aria where the Woman finds herself haunted by the ghostly imagining of her potential child—another sort of strawman altogether arrived in the form of a puppet toddler. Mouthless, its blue eyes spaced uncannily far apart, this terrifying creature was jarringly unrealistic and pulled focus from the otherwise strong work from Schlosberg and the cast.

SEE ALSO: The Impact of Art Gallery Closures on Artists and Collectors

The singers navigated all of this with grace. Soprano Katherine Henly, who joined the cast only a few weeks ago, turned in a very good performance as the Woman at the center of Quiad’s narrative. She was most affecting when Schlosberg’s score eased up on the fortissimo and let her sing with a bit more warmth, as she did in the central aria and the opera’s final moments. Henly also had to sing face-to-face with the puppet, which is a testament to her acting ability (and her bravery).

Baritone Philip Stoddard, who was in the recent revival of Camelot at Lincoln, had less to do, vocally, but he’s got a pleasant lightness to his sound and it shone in his duets with Henly. Leyden was quite funny as the awful Friend, her eyes bright with self-satisfaction as she brandished her belly, and she gets extra points for manning the puppet. Eliam Ramos, as a condescending Doctor, used his rich bass-baritone to inject some humanity into his otherwise unfeeling character.

After an excruciating gynecological scene that involved Schlosberg and the instrumentals moaning and breathing into microphones as Henly writhed in anguish during a pap smear, Quiad arrives at a cynical conclusion. The Woman finds out she is infertile. The choice was made for her. When met with her clearly conflicted feelings, everyone around her throws her change of heart back in her face, saying “This is what you wanted.” Her husband walks out on her, with barely a second glance and she is left alone to envision a sort of post-apocalyptic Eden, after the collapse of human society, where the “sidewalks will be rivers.” “Maybe this is fine?” she asks in the final line, but who will be around to hear her?

While calling for climate action can sometimes feel like screaming into the void, a more nuanced version of this story would tap into the difficulty of being an environmentalist who must balance her reasonable and justified fears about the climate and her ambivalence about having children with the need to stay in relation with the people she loves most, to honor her own desires and to move about her daily life without constantly collapsing into panic. That challenge feels closer to reality.

The Extinctionist is at Baruch Performing Arts Center through April 14.

Heartbeat Opera’s ‘The Extinctionist’ Offers Commentary With Little Complexity