‘Heart of a Dog’ surprises with a host of new tricks

By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2010

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It’s standing room only at “Heart of a Dog,’’ a chamber opera by Rudolf Rojahn that opened Thursday night at Boston Conservatory. That’s because there are no seats for the audience.

Prodded by a heavily made-up carnival barker, spectators move about the small space during the disarming show, rubbing elbows with one another and with the four performers and four musicians. If you go, be sure to wear comfortable shoes. Fortunately for feet, the provocative, lively show lasts only about 40 minutes.

Staged by the enterprising and unmistakably “alternative’’ Guerilla Opera, and directed with daffy imagination by Copeland Woodruff, “Heart of a Dog’’ very freely adapts a famous short story written in 1925 by the Soviet fantastic realist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). The anti-utopian and vaguely anti-communist sentiments of this cautionary sci-fi satire about a doctor who implants human organs in a dog with nasty results so displeased the Soviet literary censors that they banned it until 1987. For some years afterward, it ran with enormous success in a theatrical version in Moscow.

Rojahn, the co-artistic director of Guerilla Opera, has taken only Bulgakov’s central premise for his libretto. He also changes the sex of the dog from male to female, and adds an assortment of sexual acts, including (of course) bestiality. Most of these are portrayed through the manipulation of puppets and wooden cut-out figures. The often inventive music (for an ensemble composed of saxophone, viola, cello, and percussion) sounds something like a cross between Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck’’ and extremely progressive jazz.

Among the four singer/actors, the stand-out is Glorivy Arroyo (seen last season as Roggiero in Opera Boston’s “Tancredi’’) as the long-suffering housekeeper. Shrieking, moaning, and crooning in terror, she inhabits her character with total commitment and passion. The other three members of the cast are also well prepared and vocally agile: Brian Church as the Doctor, Patrick Massey as his assistant, and Aliana de la Guardia in the demanding canine/human role, which requires her to do everything but bark.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at

HEART OF A DOG Presented by Guerilla Opera, directed by Copeland Woodruff

At: Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theatre, last Thursday (repeats this Thursday, Friday and Sunday)