Just like the news these days, the new opera “The Last American Hammer” is more than a little absurd, and more than a little tragic.
The satire depicts a self-styled militiaman in camouflage, who lost his job when the hammer factory in his small Ohio town shut down. He decides to occupy a quaint ceramics museum.
Milcolm Negley wants to take down the federal government – but to his dismay, his lone foils are the older woman who runs the “Toby jug” museum and a rookie FBI agent who quickly realizes she’s gotten the assignment as a hazing.
Moreover, Negley and the curator, Tink Enraught, are, we learn, longtime acquaintances; she serves him tea and cookies while they wait out the “siege” and try to parse out what’s gone wrong with America.
The show makes its Pittsburgh premiere with four performances starting Saturday at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, in the Strip District. Nationally known baritone Timothy Mix plays Negley, with soprano Caitlin Gotimer as Enraught, and mezzo-soprano Antonia Botti-Lodovico as FBI agent DeeDee Reyes.
Composer Peter Hilliard and librettist Matt Boresi started writing the chamber opera years ago. The work began as more of a comedy, inspired in part by the 2014 standoff between federal agents and occupiers of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
But by the time “Last American Hammer” premiered, in 2018, events including the 2016 presidential campaign had turned it into something a bit more sobering, if still often comedic. “It’s really become a piece about the collapse of civil discourse in the country,” said Boresi.
Negley is a conspiracy theorist who believes in a secret, original 13th Amendment to the Constitution dating from 1810 – one meant to prevent Americans who had been given European titles of nobility from passing laws in the U.S. The amendment was never ratified, but it was mistakenly published in some printed versions of the Constitution in the early 1800s. That’s a key reason that some still argue it is in force: Negley, for reasons clear only to him, contends that the amendment in fact voids all federal laws passed since 1810.
Negley carries with him an ominous black case. In the opening scene, he sings, “Today I’m locked and loaded! / To restore dignity and honor / To the patriots of the land of the free!” Enraught responds, “Milcolm, you should really have a cookie.”
He takes a cookie.
Toby jugs, by the way, are antique works of anthropomorphic pottery. Or, as Enraught sings, “Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Figural Vessels / Objets d’art / Beauty and history / Frangible whimsy / Something to gingerly hold and behold.” Negley has targeted the museum because it is the only place in town that receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Reyes, meanwhile, attempts to defuse the slow-motion standoff; her assurances that the military is not mobilizing to terminate his rebel stand disappoint him. Eventually, able to see no other way forward, Negley holds a “trial” against the government using the inanimate jugs as stand-ins for courtroom personae.
If the jugs seem impossibly twee, they were carefully chosen by the show’s creators.
“We felt like the Toby jugs were kind of a metaphor for American polity,” says composer Hilliard. “Like, this is something that we all agree to take care of, and if we decide to not take care of it any more, it’s extremely fragile.”
Boresi calls the opera “a tragedy with a lot of humor.” Rather than simply mocking its characters, it seeks to understand them. A Washington Post review of the debut production, at Urban Arias, in Washington, D.C., said that the cast – which included Mix – “created characters of considerable depth and complexity.”
One part of the story turns on Enright and Negley’s shared sorrow about the fate of their former industrial town. Another twist involves a revelation about Enright’s past.
“We wanted to show the intricacies of it,” said Hilliard. “We wanted to have at least these two characters be in a place where they have a relationship that goes back a long way, and she actually understands him and she understands some of the reasons that he is the way he is.”
In writing the music, Hilliard strove to temper his usual tendency toward French stylings – Negley despises all things European – and instead immersed himself in bluegrass music. That genre, which was born not far south of Ohio, in the mid-20th century, flavors but doesn’t overwhelm the score. The live instrumentation includes a string quartet augmented by a double bass, banjo, and mandolin. The ensemble is conducted by Glenn Lewis.
And yes, Boresi and Hilliard are aware of the irony of making an opera -- that most European of art forms -- about a guy who hates anything from Europe.
“The anti-art, anti-intellectual vein of American thinking is alarming to us, and many of our pieces have to do with how art meets different people in different strata of American life,” said Boresi. “What does an art museum mean to these different characters?”
“I think art is important to maintaining the culture that allows us to talk to one another, for one thing, to help us share our values with each other,” said Hilliard. “The goal is to explore some of the points of articulation where things get vague and complicated.”
But while “Last American Hammer” does not explicitly address any current events, Hilliard said it is meant to spark discussion.
“One of the solutions for the impasse that our country is in right now comes in community,” he said. “The kind of community that we are continually losing as small towns get hollowed out and forums where people used to meet to discuss things go away.”
The Pittsburgh Opera production is stage-directed by Matthew Haney. Gotimer and Botti-Lodovico are Pittsburgh Opera resident artists. Performances run about 90 minutes in the intimate performance space at Opera Headquarters, in the Strip District.