The Industry is the new kid in town pressing the cause of innovative/new opera and music drama in Los Angeles. To date, the company has one production to its credit—Anne LeBaron's Crescent City, for the missing of which due quantities of self-kicking have been administered—with highly intriguing plans to premiere Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in October in situ at Los Angeles' Union Station. And at the Hammer Museum this past Saturday, with wild Up as its house band, The Industry presented (First Take), concert versions of extended excerpts from six new operas in various (but comparatively advanced) stages of development.
The roots of (First Take) lie in New York City Opera's VOX programs, for which Industry founder/Artistic Director Yuval Sharon served as Project Director. As with VOX, (First Take) aims to spot and spotlight projects that warrant the opportunity to receive quality, professional performance to help them to move that much closer to completion and full production.
In part because I fancy myself an aspiring "freelance librettist" these days, I will confess to a personal bias in favor of music drama in which the composer has been enabled to draw on a well-turned text. By that subjective standard, the pieces I most favored were the three presented in the later parts of the day, each very different from the other but each engaged in the joinder of words and music with particular effectiveness.
Ellen Reid's Winter's Child, with a text by Amanda Jane Shank, is a ghost story, southern gothic style: a girl about to turn 15, living alone with her mother, is beset by visitations from the ghosts of her three dead sisters, each of whom died just prior to her 15th birthday. The chittering ambiguously ominous spirits of the three sisters are embodied in a six-member chorus, their warnings (threats?) emerging as from a shredding mist. Britten's Turn of the Screw is something of a gold standard for operatic ghost music; Reid's angular, shifty score never imitates it, but achieves comparably unsettling effects. The excerpts on offer comprehended much of the opera's narrative arc, leaving this listener hankering to hear the story whole. The librettist is (In September, Ellen Reid ventures to a different supernatural realm, supplying music to accompany the Getty Villa's production of a new translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.)
Judging by applause and audience reaction, Pierrot Lunaire from composer Mohammed Fairouz was the popular favorite of the day, and it is a piece with prodigious reserves of unwholesome appeal. On the cusp between song-cycle and opera, this Pierrot has only a tenuous relation to Arnold Schoenberg's famed setting of twenty-one poems by Albert Girauds. Here, the text is a sequence of ten poems (the latter six segments were performed on Saturday) by Wayne Koestenbaum, which allude to Girauds's poems principally by imitating their rondeau form. Otherwise, the poetic material goes very much its own way, swimming and spattering about, contemporizing the creepy JungundFreudische dream visions of High Surrealism. Koestenbaum is a gleeful name checker, inserting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag in to discomforting circumstances, like Lenin on a grand piano. Fairouz's score fully exploits the simultaneous zaniness and dread of the text, larking sharply through a kaleidoscopic range of styles and backhanded references. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov, in the role of Pierrot, was called upon to croon, burn, wheedle and shriek, or all at once, and did so commandingly. Pierrot is a literate, nightmarish treat.
(Pierrot Lunaire in full receives its premiere production in New York later this week. In that connection, the composer posted an essay about the work last week at the Huffington Post. In his fast growing catalogue of work, Pierrot contrasts neatly with Mohammed Fairouz's earlier opera, Sumeida's Song, a well tuned little clockwork tragedy of a piece of a more traditional operatic kind: a sort of verismo on the upper Nile, it is excellently crafted, dramatically and musically compelling, and well worth seeking out. An earlier collaboration with Koestenbaum, the three-song sequence "POSH," is featured on the fine new survey of Fairouz's work recently released by the Naxos label, Native Informant.)
Showing The Youth How It Is Done, the afternoon concluded with the latest work from the perpetually questing Pauline Oliveros, just turned 81. If The Nubian Word for Flowers had an epigraph, it would perhaps be T.S Eliot's "Old men ought to be explorers." With a text by the poet Ione, the opera imagines the British general Lord Kitchener, a skilled botanist in addition to being a maker of wars, plucked out of the world to a mysterious island where he meets an equally mysterious Nubian boatman/astronomer, catalyzing a communion of the past and the infinite.Three strands of music underlie the piece: prerecorded electronics incorporating found sounds and birdsong, fully notated parts for the singers, and "guided improvisation" by the orchestra with substantial infusions of traditional Nubian motifs. Saturday's performance shared just enough of the full work to make plain that it is a dream one would fain enter more fully.
Aaron Siegel's brother brother, with which Saturday's program opened, meditates on the condition of brother-hood through pairs of real and imagined brothers: Orville and Wilbur Wright and twins named Red and Blue. Combining sparely poetic arias with spoken questions and narratives that verged on non sequitur, the selections from the three-act work that were performed on Saturday did not coalesce in to a clear idea of the larger whole, but were never less than intriguing from moment to moment.
Alexander Vassos' The House is Open ruminates on family and on the relations between waking and sleeping life, hanging its narrative on Charley, a nine-year old boy who has spent six of those years asleep. Consciously modeled on the "horror of the ordinary" aesthetic of David Lynch, House is also interested in different ways of presenting sound to the audience: at one point, Charley is fitted with a "crown" of microphones and turns slowly about as family members sing in to them, their voices traveling around the hall depending on which mic each is faced with at the moment. Plenty of ideas are moving about the piece, but again the overall dramatic shape was hard to glean on Saturday.
Davið Brynjar Franzson's Longitude was the most "unoperalike" piece, and the least suited to being taken in in a concert format. It is inspired by the figure of Jørgen Jørgensen, who in 1809 "liberated" Iceland from Denmark and ruled the briefly independent nation as a Protector/dictator for forty days before the Danes returned, ousted him and turned him over to British authorities. The composer and collaborators describe it as a "site specific monodrama," and on this occasion it was wordless: an actor stands, largely motionless except when his arm is manipulated bunraku-puppet style, his profile silhouetted by projections as live musicians and realtime electronics scrape and creak and crackle. It is more interesting than that may make it sound, but it would make more sense as an immersive sight and sound installation upstairs on the Hammer's video gallery than it did on stage.
Each of the six works on this initial (First Take) program is deserving of the encouragement it received by its inclusion on the program. The largely-full house in the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater responded with enthusiasm to them all. The greatest enthusiasm, however, was reserved for The Industry and for the (First Take) project itself. This fool, for one, hopes that the first (First Take) is far from the last, and that it will become an annual fixture in the Los Angeles new music landscape.