The Family room

  • Premiered on July 23, 2011 at the Berlind Theatre in the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey
  • Composer: Thomas Pasatieri
  • Librettist: Daphne Malfitano
  • Director: Scott Schwartz
  • Starring: Catherine Malfitano, Lauren Flanigan, and Darrell Larson
  • Pianist: Chris Cooley
  • Producers: American Opera Projects and Opera New Jersey

For years opera-lovers have been speculating about what might happen if two of our most adventurous singing actresses, Catherine Malfitano and Lauren Flanigan, joined forces. In late July, American Opera Projects and Opera New Jersey made that happen with the presentation of a staged reading of Thomas Pasatieri’s new work The Family Room. The most startling aspect of the opera, however, was the libretto by Daphne Malfitano, the soprano’s daughter. A professional actress from age four (she made her debut as Trouble to her mother’s Butterfly in Marseilles), Malfitano moved to Los Angeles after graduating from New York’s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, but scrambling for Hollywood acting jobs got old fast. “I would go into meetings with these producers, and they would ask, ‘what have you done?’ I would list these things that in the East Coast theater business had been huge, and they would want to know if I had ever been a guest star on Law & Order.” Fed up, she tried her hand at writing a play, finished it, then kept writing more. She still looks like an actress- she often looks like she’s auditioning for a Merchant Ivory film- but The Family Room proves that she is without a doubt a serious writer.
It’s a jarring three-character drama about a pair of unnamed women who live out their lives in a solitary room, while ominous noises are heard from above. The story resonates in several directions- for me, in the direction of both Emma Donoghue’s startling novel Room and the hideous Phillip and Nancy Garrido kidnapping and rape case in California. But Daphne Malfitano’s triumph is that she has laced her script with so many strands of ambiguity that we resist a too-literal interpretation of the action. We are taken into the private universe that the two women- who clearly cannot escape the room- have constructed as a means of survival. “If you tell the audience what a situation means,” says Malfitano, “if you show how they were locked in the room- any answer you can give is smaller than reality.”
Initially, when Pasatieri proposed writing a vehicle for her mother and Flanigan, Malfitano was stuck. “I thought, ‘How do I write this and not have them be two aging divas sitting around somewhere?’ That wasn’t my writing style. And I thought, ‘What if I lock them in a basement and leave them there?’ In other words, how do you un-diva two divas?
— Brian Kellow, Opera News, 2011
The Pasatieri opera is a two-singer piece written for veteran divas Catherine Malfitano and Lauren Flanigan, and initially it seems to be a typically elegiac chamber piece about aging, forgotten females reliving the past. But the past keeps morphing into questionable realities. They’re waiting for others to show up and seem curiously confined without exit (the Jean-Paul Sartre allusion intended). What finally unfolds is almost unthinkably sinister. I won’t ruin the plot because the piece, being developed by American Opera Projects, has legs. Its two recognized, high-personality singers with the stage virtually to themselves and portable, minimal set requirements and accompaniment (Saturday’s matinee used piano) make the piece an immensely appealing pendant to the fully staged productions in this festival cast, otherwise populated by emerging artists. ...The score and the cunning libretto by Malfitano’s daughter Daphne fully engage the singers’ considerable resources.
— David Patrick Stears, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2011
In “The Family Room,” composed by Thomas Pasatieri with a libretto by Daphne Malfitano, the two main characters are billed only as Woman 1 and Woman 2...
”The Family Room” has its own sensational premise that can be traced to real events. Its protagonists have been trapped in a windowless basement room, afraid- or maybe unable- to leave their captor.
The opera’s private staged reading at the McCarter Theatre’s Berlind Theatre was the first collaboration between Opera New Jersey and American Opera Projects. The show opens this weekend and offered much to recommend it.
Written for and sung compellingly by renowned sopranos Catherine Malfitano and Lauren Flanigan, the story’s central women are vividly, distinctly drawn, with relatable desires expressed eloquently in both words and music. The opera has many elements of mystery and room for audience interpretation.
But, while trying not to give too much away, part of what makes “The Family Room” so intriguing is that desperation breeds creativity. As the women imagine future plans and share their memories, intoxicating melodies lull the characters and the listeners. Just as the soothing music begins to cast its spell, the women’s fates seem to grow more dismal, with urgent dissonant chords in jittery rhythms smashing their reveries. Pasatieri’s vocal writing is impeccable and pianist Christopher Cooley did an excellent job bringing this new score to life. Director Scott Schwartz made economical use of the minimally decorated stage.
It was refreshing and gratifying to see new opera performed in New Jersey and one hopes that next season will bring more like “The Family Room.”
— Ronnie Reich, The Star Ledger, 2011