Ted Hearne

Katrina Ballads
New Amsterdam Records NWA011

With events such as Richard Nixon’s China visit the subject of modern operas, why not 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans? That’s what composer Ted Hearne has done with this 70-minute song cycle. It’s scored for five singers and 11 musicians, including horn and string ensembles and a rock rhythm section.

Winner of many awards since its premiere at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Katrina Ballads is a mature work that belies Herne’s age of 28. Witty as well as inventive, the libretto consists of vocalized versions of transcribed sound bites from New Orleans residents, reporters and officials. Almost every track is given a finer point by the arrangements which adapt variants of notated, jazz, and pop musics to the program.

There are many standouts, including Herne’s zippy and jivey repetition of George Bush’s infamous “Brownie You’re Doin’ A Heck of a Job”; and “Barbara Bush”, where the ex-First Lady’s saying the underprivileged don’t mind uprooting is mocked straight-faced by mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer accompanied by faux C&W fiddling and honky-tonk piano. There’s poignancy as well. “Hardy Jackson” sung by baritone Anthony Turner is a parlando lament for a victim’s missing wife. There’s also tenor Isaiah Robinson’s fully orchestrated gospel-like recasting of the statement that George Bush didn’t care about black people by rapper “Kanye West”.

Impressively as well, Turner and soprano Allison Semple’s musical recreation of an interview between “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu” is an operatic-style recitative highlights swift-tongued talents, while cracklings with the reporter’s indignation towards the platitude-spouting Louisiana senator.

— Ken Waxman

— For Whole Note Vol. 16 #4