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A former food critic is now reinventing comic opera


For 30 years, Byron Nilsson has written insightfully and candidly about restaurants and classical music under the BA Nilsson byline for Metroland, which folded in 2015. These days, he practices the culinary arts primarily at home qu he shares with his wife in the small community of Glen. , Montgomery County, and he applies his writing skills primarily to a blog and a slowly developing first draft of a novel. Also fluent and prolific in acting, Nilsson is an Equity actor who performed for 10 years with the now-defunct New York State Theater Institute and wrote a significant number of plays and musicals.

Over the past few years, Nilsson’s dramatic talents have found their place, on and off stage, with the Ma’alwyck Musicians. In one of the chamber ensemble’s highest-profile and ambitious releases, Max Caplan’s 2018 commissioned opera “Aleda: The Flight of the Suff Birdwomen,” Nilsson played a sharp-eyed journalist who followed a group of suffragettes in their daring antics. “It was a difficult piece. Max is incredibly talented but I’m a musical theater guy. I don’t sing diminished sevenths,” he recalls, adding that he was saved by music software that helped him learn the tricky part.

Nilsson’s friendship with band manager Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz dates back to the early 1980s, when they both had relatively short tenures as on-air hosts for WMHT-FM. “She always comes up with inventive stuff and we work well together,” he says.

Their latest collaboration was an English-language production of “The Ship’s Captain,” an 1817 one-act comic opera by Carl August Blum. The hour-long show for three singers and three instrumentalists is light in spirit, something akin to a vaudeville or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Most of the melodies are borrowed from more famous works, including Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. “The audience will come humming the tunes,” says Nilsson.

There are three upcoming performances: 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 19 at the Strand Theater in Hudson Falls; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21 at the Conservancy in Glen; and 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 22 at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. (More info on musiciansdemaalwyck.org)

Luckily for Schwartz, Nilsson loves a challenge. He took on the task of making an English edition of the songs and writing a new book. He also did the staging.

“It really took me. I translated from German with the old German typeface, which made it difficult to distinguish many characters. Between my German high school and Dr. Google, I understood what was going on in the story. I then reworked the booklet to make sense and have a little more contemporary humor,” he says.

Crafting flowing, rhyming lyrics is no easy task, but Nilsson brings a natural sense of humor and, inspired by his ancestors, seems to love the work. “I’m a bit particular, I like that they rhyme correctly and have punchlines that work. There are so many lazy songwriters now. They don’t make the rhymes work,” says Nilsson. “The discovery of Gilbert and Sullivan got me started, and then there was Porter and Berlin. When I found Sondheim, it was all over. A crucial tool in Nilsson’s work is Clement Wood’s Rhyming Dictionary, which has was first published in 1936 and was also Sondheim’s go-to resource.

Another high-profile songwriter in Nilsson’s pantheon is Tom Lehrer, whose ’60s tracks cleverly poke fun at the politics of the day. Last year, Nilsson and his longtime sidekick, Malcom Kogut, performed a concert at the historic Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs to celebrate Lehrer’s 93rd birthday. They later released the live recording on a CD titled “Songs to Amuse”. (songsforamusing.com)

“Lehrer’s lyrics are beautifully rhymed and were perfect for thwarting the stuffy conventions of the 1960s in a wonderfully literary way,” says Nilsson. Among the cabaret duo’s favorite numbers from the set were “Alma” (about Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel), “The Masochism Tango” and “Vatican Rag.” In a nod to the pandemic, the finale was “I Got It from Agnes.”

Coming next month from Nilsson and the Musicians of Ma’alwyck is a cover of “Buxtahude’s Daughter”, a comedy cantata with music by Thomas F. Savoy and lyrics by Nilsson. Savoy was a prominent church musician in the Capital Region who now lives in Charlotte. One of many collaborations between Nilsson and Savoy, the cantata tells the true (albeit embellished) story of how a young JS Bach applied for the post of church organist which the elder Dieterich Buxtahude was giving up. It would be a good stable position, but it came with an unusual condition. The engaged musician was to marry Buxtahude’s daughter, a 30-year-old spinster.

“It’s totally irreverent, a clash of wills between Bach and Anna, the girl. It’s full of little musical jokes and it’s just something we create for fun,” says Nilsson.

The concert, June 25 at Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, will also feature PDQ Bach’s “Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs,” a satirical journey through the signs of the zodiac. “It’s funny and delightful with many layers of humor,” says Nilsson, who has had various contacts over the years with PDQ Bach creator Peter Schickele, a Woodstock resident. Schickele, 86, has retired, but Nilsson learns he is working on an autobiography, which may be a more true-to-life sequel to the fictional biography he wrote about his famous imaginary character.

Recently, Nilsson celebrated his 66th birthday by delivering a personal new verse to “Route 66”, Bobby Troup’s standard. Given how smart and playful Nilsson is in conversation, it seems pretty clear that he has deep reserves of ideas and good humor. When asked if his relatively remote and presumably quiet farm was conducive to creativity and productivity, he replied that it was actually the opposite for him.

“I do more work sitting in a place like Uncommon Ground, where there’s a bit of hubbub. At home, there is always something to do like sweeping or cleaning. The only time I clean up is when there’s a deadline,” he says. Yet once he embarks on a new endeavor, the world slips away from him, as he explains: “I’m very project-oriented, not time-oriented. I’ll go into a tunnel and later dive in and think that’s it? I don’t remember doing anything!

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.