Tempted by the Fruit of an Author
[Four Larks: The Temptation of St. Anthony]

Foray dans les forêts de symboles

 O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.

— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Infinite space in a nutshell is a cogent metaphor for what the creative performative collective Four Larks offers in The Temptation of St. Anthony, scheduled to run through October 2 at [a secret location revealed to ticket holders] in downtown Los Angeles. The Temptation is as all-consuming in its concerns, and as vivid and innovative in its theatrical gestures, as Einstein on the Beach, but compresses it all into a mere 75 minutes, with a dozen performers, a set and properties scavenged and cobbled together from heaven knows where, and in a space that would not fill an Einsteinian caboose. It is a mighty microcosmos.

The intense compaction of The Temptation of St. Anthony is perhaps a tribute to its origins in Gustave Flaubert's novella. Flaubert spent nearly half his life writing the book, each successive version etched and edited to remove everything he determined to be inessential. His first draft ran well over 500 pages. Some two-thirds of that disappeared in the second draft, and so on until the page count of the final version barely topped 100. It is nearly devoid of external plot, but tells of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356) who, after many years of living the life of a holy hermit in the desert (atop a cliff, where "an aged and twisted palm tree leans over the abyss") is beset one night by doubt-driven visions designed to draw him from his holy path: the Seven Deadly Sins appear, and a series of rulers (Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba), heretics, mages, scientists, pagan gods and philosophers descend upon him. At daybreak, he emerges tested and recommitted to his faith, resuming his pious life. The incident was long a favorite of painters, as it provided an opportunity to depict lewdness and grotesquerie under the guise of spiritual teaching. Flaubert's depiction is far more austere and inward looking. (For lewdness and grotesquerie in Flaubert, the reader is advised to consider his epic depiction of same in Salammbô.)

A magic number

Four Larks describes itself as an artist operated collective, founded and guided by Artistic Director Mat Diafos Sweeney (also the adaptor/writer/composer of The Temptation, with lyrics by Jesse Rasmussen) and Creative Producer (and principal Temptation designer) Sebastian Peters-Lazaro. "Junkyard opera" is the portmanteau description for the Larks' body of work. The Temptation is described as "a euphotic rite of music, dance and visual theatre." It is less an opera or play than it is a pageant or, most accurately perhaps, a contemporary masque. Instead of in a palace or chateau, however, The Temptation plays out inside a seemingly shuttered one time wholesale floral facility a few blocks from the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

As a courtly masque might include elaborate constructions depicting the provinces of gods or a nymphean retreat, Four Larks has devised a mystic cave environment of its own, filling its chosen space far, wide, high, and low, with books, abandoned and outmoded communications devices, artistic detritus, faux ruins, and a myriad of uncategorizable objects of all sorts, all colored a desert-blasted off white. On arrival, members of the audience can explore the eccentric desolation, perhaps with a refreshment in hand. At performance time, they are ushered into the comparably be-cluttered performance room. At the front of the floor level stage area, The Hermit (Max Baumgarten) is already present. His thick and sand dappled Bible beside him, he is focused intently on a battered manual typewriter, hard at work on what proves to be the text of The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Mementoes

In form, Flaubert's Temptation resembles a drama more than it does any traditional 19th Century novel. Considered as a play, The Temptation can be tied to the symbolic and nocturnal experimentalism of Strindberg's A Dream Play or Ibsen's Peer Gynt (which Four Larks took on during a period its founders spent in Melbourne, Australia). As a working premise, the conflation of the writer, the work he is writing, and the events within the work he is writing handily throws open the door to the free flowing, ambiguous shape shifting free for all that ensues.

The Temptation begins with an authorial voiceover, speaking the introductory description of the hermit and his hermitage as it is typed, but the creator is soon absorbed by the creation as the visions and manifestations come thick and fast. For much of its later stretches, The Temptation's chief speaker is not The Hermit but the dreamt version of his one time follower Hilarion (Caitlin Conlin), whose evening attire and sprightly wickedness of manner may recall the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret. Figures historical and symbolic emerge and disappear with the rapidity of shuffled cards. Ideas and arguments fly about at breakneck speed. The Hermit is caromed about in a mazy concatenation of movement, music, light, speech, sound and surprise, emerging (as perhaps he had not expected) back at the place he began, his typewriter the still point in an uncertainly resettled world. He is left, as is his audience, to reflect upon—or more likely simply to muse and to marvel over—whatever it was that has just happened to him. As one does, when what has happened is something of a wonderment. The Temptation of St. Anthony is a wonderment like no other in recent memory, and not to be missed or resisted.

The revels now are ended

~~~

The Temptation of St. Anthony is currently scheduled through October 2, 2016. Capacity is modest and some performances are sold out. Such tickets as may be had may be sought here.

The blogger attended the September 8 performance of The Temptation of St. Anthony as a paying customer.

Photos above (l'espace) by the blogger. Photos below (les artistes) by Michael Amica, used by kind permission of Four Larks.

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Invisible Synchronicities
[The Industry Records presents
The Edge of Forever]

The Forever on the Edge of a City

Enterprising Los Angeles new-opera company The Industry specializes in productions in expansive and unexpected places: in and around a working rail terminal for Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities, a fleet of moving limousines around the city for Hopscotch. The Industry also operates a recording imprint, and on Friday evening hosted an event on the occasion of its second release, The Edge of Forever, composed by Lewis Pesacov on a libretto by Elizabeth Cline (also The Industry's Executive Director).

The Edge of Forever is a sort of ultimate pièce d'occasion, intended to be performed only once, on a precise date and at a precise time, portraying events that are themselves occurring at that precise moment, though they have been foreordained to happen for millennia. The date in question was (in local Los Angeles reckoning) the 21st day of December, 2012, the final day of the 5,126 "long count" as reckoned by the Mayan calendar, on which occasion either the world was to end, or else a new and renewed world was to begin. The single performance occurred in the Mayan-revival spaces of the Philosophical Research Society, in the Los Feliz district. The recording documents that performance. Three of the opera's five scenes are represented by a live recording from the event, while the first and last scenes are later studio recreations including multitracked vocal parts.

As performed and recorded, The Edge of Forever is incomplete, representing only the final act of a three-act opera. The first two acts take place, or took place (in local Los Angeles reckoning) on the 13th day of March in the year 830. On that date, the first day of the tenth of thirteen cycles comprising the long count, the ancient Mayan astronomer Laakan was granted insight by the gods: he must descend into the cenote, or ceremonial cavern, there to wait out the years until the end of the thirteenth and final cycle, when he will achieve unity with the beloved one, Etznab, at the moment of the world's renewal. The performance of the third act in 2012 thus took place following the longest intermission in operatic history: 1182 years.

Ashley Faatoalia and, looking relaxed, Richard Valitutto on oscillatorsThat final act, as it comes to us now, begins as did the first so long ago, with a procession of scribes, all four sung on the recording by Abby Fischer with an exuberant and often birdlike tintinnabulist ululation. Laakon (tenor Ashley Faatoalia, Marco Polo in Invisible Cities) emerges from meditation and sacred slumber, describes what a long and often despairing wait it has been, praises and embraces the wisdom of what the gods foretold and ordained, and achieves an apotheosis of sorts with the long promised (albeit unheard and unseen) beloved. After such a prolonged caesura, the act itself lasts roughly 38 minutes.

Ritual and enlightenment, not plot action, are the order of the day. Musically, the extant parts of the work build over rich drones and an array of bells, chimes, and other long-resonating percussion. Laakon's exaltation in the final scene aspires most satisfactorily, and without any obvious Wagnerian allusions, to achieve a Tristan-like sense of endless rising.

The non-singing musicians of The Edge of Forever, in 2012 and on the recording, are members of wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree. To open the release event, Rountree and a subset of those players performed another Lewis Pesacov piece: an instruction-based work also for bells and chimes and suchlike long-sustaining vibration producers, the performers singing wordless harmonics triggered by the sound of one other's instruments, the whole eventually subsiding to breath and a long sustained meditative silence. From The Edge of Forever itself, the release audience heard the recorded version of the first scene, in a highly effective surround mix, and a similarly effective live performance of the final scene.

The Industry recording is being released principally on vinyl, with texts and inserts and packaging harking to the former era of deluxe opera albums. (In his comments at the release, Lewis Pesacov had fond reminiscences of growing up perusing his parents' old opera boxed sets.) The Edge of Forever is also available for download in multiple digital formats via Bandcamp.

The Edge of Forever - front cover~~~

The June 24, 2016, release event was held at warehouse-turned-arts-space, 356 Mission, and was free to all. The blogger earlier received an advance promotional copy of The Edge of Forever on CD [rare and collectible, perhaps, given that the actual release is only vinyl and digital] through the good offices of The Industry's publicists at DOTDOTDOTMUSIC. Photos, other than the album cover, are by the blogger, from the release event.


The Naked and the Dead
[David Lang: anatomy theater]

  Anatomy theater 2

I asked myself if it were credible that [Evil as] a cosmic force of the sort postulated by Averaud could really exist; or, granting its existence, could be evoked by any man through the absurd intermediation of a musical device.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Devotee of Evil” (1933)

I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.

— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Press and publicity for the world premiere of David Lang's new anatomy theater—being a Lang piece, it arrives with neither a definite article nor capitalization—have emphasized its most lurid qualities: A live hanging! A singing-stark-naked-mezzo corpse eviscerated before your eyes! Vitals, and vital bodily fluids, galore! The Guardian asks: is it "the goriest opera ever?" Perhaps it is. But at the opening performance Thursday evening the grisly entrails, the leering grotequeries, the uncomfortable voyeurism, and the general awfulness of the characters were largely beside the point. Despite being as nasty as promised in its particulars, the larger experience of anatomy theater is unexpectedly humane and cathartic. The gore is a McGuffin.

Working with a libretto co-written with artist Mark Dion, Lang's opera follows the final hours, living and dead, of Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell) in 18th century London. The performance begins outside of the auditorium, with the public spectacle (replete with sausages and beer) of Osborne's hanging for the murder of her abusive husband and her two small children. Before the noose is applied, she delivers her confession to the crowd, narrating a life of sexual abuse, street living, prostitution, drunkenness and misery. The execution accomplished, the executioner removes his hood to reveal himself as one Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), proprietor of the nearby establishment at which the murderess's corpse ("still warm!" he promises with a smirk) will be publicly dissected. The spectators are ushered to their seats and the demonstration begins.

Anatomy theater 1

Crouch continues as the acidly smiling host of the proceedings, making little secret of the contempt he holds for the "young gentlemen" who have entered his theater or his pleasure at parting them from their money. So many supposed physicians, scientists, artists, he marvels, here to closely observe an attractive young woman (a smack of the lips) laid open as open can be. And adding to the specialness and high purpose of the occasion, a celebrity anatomist will be in charge: the renowned Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), on whose behalf the actual dismantlement of the body will be performed by his assistant, Mr. Strang (Timur).

Baron Peel is more moralist than scientist: he knows what he expects, nay! is certain, to find even before he sets to looking for it. He will demonstrate to us all that the evil nature of Sarah Osborne, and the judgment of the Almighty upon her, are reflected tangibly in the condition of her internal organs. He cannot be sure where exactly evil lies, but its physical presence will be revealed, for the expansion of Knowledge and the greater glory of God, or at least of Baron Peel as God's minister on earth.

anatomy theater is concerned with that question of evil, its nature, and where and how it may be revealed, removed, or understood. It has on its mind as well the question of power: Baron Peel holds power over everyone in the room by virtue of his place as a peer, high on a rigorously unbending apparatus of class. All of the other characters have power over Sarah Osborne because she has no present ability to argue otherwise, and because she never really did: the power, recurringly misused, of men over women is a given in Sarah Osborne's world, and her having acted brutally to protest and thwart it is the very thing that has brought her to her death. While these men seek to find corruption in the body of Sarah Osborne, they demonstrate by the very casualness, even jollity, with which they disdain her life and humanity that their power is itself corrupt.

With the aid of uncomfortably persuasive practical stage effects, the body of Sarah Osborne is cut open and the organs removed one by one. The initial incision produces a seemingly endless skein of intestines, cast aside immediately as of no scientific interest. The process continues as first the stomach, then the spleen, then the heart, and finally the uterus is extracted and carefully measured and described to the Baron by Mr. Strang. To the Baron's growing annoyance, each organ proves to be healthy and without apparent flaw. None shows any sign that it has housed any ill, let alone been the home to heinous evil. At the last, the Baron assures his audience that the search has not been fruitless, for we have conclusively established "where evil is not" in this woman. Perhaps it is in the soul that one might find it. He bids good night, and Crouch ushers the audience out with an invitation to meet him at the rear door should any wish to purchase any of the remaining portions of the body for (heh heh) further study at home. 

If, apart from squeamishness or repulsion at the visceral effects, a viewer is left feeling icky and uncomfortable, it may well be the result of participating in a voyeuristic exercise, as the principal voyeur. Crouch repeatedly reminds the viewer that he (all would have been "he" in keeping with the period setting) has paid handsomely to enter and to look and look and look, inside and out, at this entirely defenseless human woman. Peabody Southwell, as Sarah, lies upon the table, motionless and entirely naked for most of the proceedings. Each member of the audience is in some way complicit in that reduction. 

For all that, the end result of anatomy theater is not reductive. It is, rather, almost hopeful, reminding its discomfited witnesses that ugliness and cruelty are ever present, but that they are not all there is to human life. Beauty, decency, and aspiration to being better and kinder can be found and are worth seeking after. In the particular case of anatomy theater, skill and beauty in the creation of the piece and skill and beauty in its performance serve as the carrier waves for that more comforting view.

The singing and character work of the four onstage performers is exemplary. Sarah Osborne is provided two singular arias, one on each side of her death. In the prologue outside the theater, she gives her confession before execution, telling the story of her life and the conditions that led her to suffocate her husband and infants. Peabody Southwell presents it with mesmerizing directness, nuance, and intimacy, such that the body next seen on the dissection table is not that of a stranger. Midway through that dissection, Sarah Osborne sings again, her song consisting largely of the repeated phrase "My heart." That organ is on the side table with Mr. Strang, who has just reported its unblemished quality and been instructed to seek further after evil, in the womb. Fast approaching literal disembodiment, Sarah Osborne evokes the heart's intangible qualities, the capacity and wish for love, and the natural good she stored there through a pain-filled life. While evil may lie somewhere close by, its antithesis is also near in that moment.

Anatomy theater 3

Each of the singing actors surrounding Peabody Southwell is as strong in his way as she. Marc Kudisch's Crouch is part carnival barker, part entrepreneur, part back-alley porn peddlar, with a dollop of 50's horror-comic undertaker for spice. Crouch is a horrible person, he despises humankind, but a fellow has to make a living, so he provides ample entertainment in his flamboyant person. anatomy theater incorporates a fair amount of bleak and perverse humor, most of it emanating from the dreadful Mr. Crouch. As Baron Peel, Robert Osborne is called upon to be straight and narrow at all times, the embodiment of self-important seriousness and authority. Osborne gives Peel's declamations a from-the-pulpit quality that suits him well. Mr. Strang, meanwhile, is the closest the piece comes to a male character with any redeeming qualities. He provides the physical labor to take Sarah Osborne apart, without seeming to take any unwholesome pleasure in it, and reports his findings as to each organ earnestly, affirming strongly that he can discover nothing wrong with nor any sign of evil in any of them. Timur presents him as something of a skilled and intelligent innocent, not ultimately convinced of Baron Peel's "evil is here" premise. (Timur deserves extra credit, as well, as he seems to be charged with actually triggering and applying the sanguinary effects that so vividly disembowel the late Sarah Osborne.)

Where goodness truly lies in anatomy theater is in David Lang's score. For the most part, even in the martial tattoo accompanying the confession and execution, Lang has made use of the tools he has developed in recent years in works such as the Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion and death speaks—the latter much admired by this blogger. Texts are set over semi-repeating cells of melodic material, the melodies never seeming to move outside a limited range in any given sequence, but gaining momentum and motion by accretion atop and beside one another. The result is what could be described as a highly textured flatness, as when in an abstract or minimalist painting a seemingly unvaried color surface is revealed to have been worked with exacting precision at its finest level, discoverable only upon closest inspection. As a musical method, it proves highly effective at creating an underlying ethereal ache or melancholic and untethered yearning, moving without seeming to move. Around and about, Lang has distributed sections in a style that somehow combines opera seria with the smoky acidity of Weill setting Brecht. (The period nature of the piece and the presence of an accordion in martial tattoo accompanying it gives the execution, apart from Sarah's confession, a hint of the famous near-hanging of MacHeath in The Beggar's and/or Threepenny Opera.) The score is performed with rigor and vigor and, yes, ample heart by members of the wild Up collective, conducted with his usual energy and commitment by Christopher Rountree. 

~~~

anatomy theater is premiering as part of Los Angeles Opera's "Off Grand" initiative in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects. Performances are in the lobby and theater at REDCAT, beneath Walt Disney Concert Hall. The final performance of the run is Monday, June 20. Procuring tickets may be in the realm of the possible but at this point is, more likely than not, not. Perhaps another time.

The beer being served at the execution was a delicious Milk Thistle Stout created by Solarc Brewing, the fine craft beer maker co-founded by Archie Carey, bassoonist with wild Up. There is no bassoon in anatomy theater nor, so far as I know, in the beer.

Photos: Craig T. Mathew, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended the opening performance of anatomy theater as a paying customer. He was offered and accepted free beer and sausage prior to the performance, but that was on offer to all.


Hey Now Baby, Get Into My Big Black Car
[The Industry: Hopscotch]

Hopscotch - rooftop fanfarewell
Do children still play hopscotch? When I was a child in the suburbs of Detroit the game was still a common one, but I never learned the rules, either formally or by observation, and its workings remain a mystery to me to this day.

The workings of Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars are only slightly less enigmatic. Hopscotch is the newest offering from Los Angeles' exploratory opera company The Industry, now in performance in daylight on weekends only through November 22. The run is essentially sold out, though viewing via the Central Hub (see the explanation of the mechanics of things below) is available to all for free at all remaining performances. I experienced one portion of Hopscotch—the Red Route—at the first performance of the day on Saturday, November 7, as a paying customer.

The first rule of Hopscotch is that I must attempt to explain how Hopscotch works:

Hopscotch is an opera, devised by The Industry's Artistic Director Yuval Sharon with six composers (Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, and David Rosenboom) combinatorially collaborating with as many librettists (Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and Erin Young). The story is constructed in 34 Chapters. Of the 34 Chapters, 10 exist as animations online, with scores improvised by the ensemble gnarwhallaby. The remaining 24 Chapters have been shuffled and dealt out for performance across three Routes: Red, Yellow and Green, eight Chapters per route. Each Route includes one or more Chapters from each of the six composers, and each Route includes Chapters from all parts of the longer narrative. Routes may cross one another, but they do not share any Chapters. At each of the three daily performances, all three Routes are running simultaneously. On each Route, eight vehicles (limousines for the most part) transport four audience members apiece from Chapter to Chapter, with some Chapters taking place wholly or partially inside the car, some witnessed through the windows, and others involving getting out, entering, following, exploring whatever action may be playing out. On each Route, there are four starting points; from each starting point, two vehicles depart simultaneously, each headed to a different initial Chapter, one traveling the Route clockwise, the other otherwise. In the course of each Chapter, the audience exits the vehicle in which it came, and eventually enters another for the next Chapter.

Simplicity itself, really.

The story of Hopscotch, no more ridiculous than that of most any other opera, centers on the life of Lucha, and the two men most central to it, Jameson and Orlando. Lucha and Jameson "meet cute" when her auto meets with his motorcycle in a collision. At the time, Lucha is working with Orlando and his wife Sarita on an avant-garde, puppet-based theatre piece. Lucha and Jameson fall in love. When Sarita dies, Orlando professes his own love for Lucha and, upon being rejected, leaves for Paris. Jameson pursues mysterious research into the mind and/or parallel realities and, midway through the opera, vanishes inexplicably, never to return. Lucha receives phone calls that prove, eventually, to have been from her future self. There is a descent into Hades. Orlando eventually returns from Paris, and is this time accepted by Lucha. From a rooftop, Lucha looks back and marvels at it all.

Hopscotch - a bridge between Luchas young and old

The characters are recognizable by their color schemes: Jameson is always in black; Lucha's bright yellow dresses are a constant; Sarita, in life and death, is in red; Orlando sports a brown jacket with a distinctive hat. In any given Chapter there may be multiple versions of a character, from any point in their lives. Some are singers, some actors, some instrumentalists. the audience gets none of it in order, and each vehicle-group gets what it gets in a different sequence from the other vehicles rolling the route at that moment. To see it all requires taking all three separately ticketed Routes, which can be done but cannot be done in a day.

There is also The Central Hub. The Hub is a construction in the downtown Arts District, open for free to all comers. During the performances, live video and sound feeds are received in the Central Hub from all three of the ongoing Routes. (Some of the Chapters and their vehicles have fixed smartphone cameras inside or outside the vehicle; in others, an audience member is handed a phone in order to shoot whatever they wish of the proceedings.) At the conclusion of the final performance of each day, all 24 Hopscotch vehicles converge on the Central Hub for a once-daily finale composed by Andrew Norman.

Simplicity itself, really.

Through its gestation and rollout, I was something of a Hopscotch skeptic. While I knew firsthand that The Industry has a genuine flair for site-specific and immersive productions—demonstrated by the nigh-miraculous 2013 premiere of Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in and around Union Station—Hopscotch in its hyperambitious proliferation of moving parts had about it the aura of a stunt, a novelty for novelty's sake. I thought that I might be obliged to echo Dr. Johnson (albeit without his leaven of misogyny) in response to being told of a woman preaching: that it would be "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." In the end, I gave in, purchasing what may have been the last available November 7 ticket.

Hopscotch - Lucha Libros

The Red Route, which I traveled, for the most part keeps to the east of downtown, in and around Boyle Heights, apart from one dramatic venture to Lucha's parting rooftop above the Arts District. (The Yellow Route centers on Downtown proper, while the Green Route fares more to the north toward Elysian Park.)

At the assigned starting point beside the Casa Del Mexicano, my fellow travelers and I entered our first vehicle to find an Orlando in place at the front; we were joined as the door closed by a violinist and violist and by Sarita in red, already dead, her face painted as a Dia de los Muertos skull. It was Chapter 17, Orlando's departure for Paris. The car pulled out, the music began, Orlando sang his thoughts and Sarita provided wordless counterpoint. In short order, we eased into the gates of the historic Evergreen Cemetery, driving past multilingual early 20th century headstones and groups of real people visiting with the real dead. The car stopped briefly, Sarita exited. We drove on, circling into another part of the cemetery where, through the window, Sarita reappeared, pacing and muttering, her voice broadcast to us inside.

Out of the cemetery then and, a few blocks further on, out of the first car and into the next. Here we found already in place Phillip King, a harpist with a concurrent talent for beatboxing. (Photography inside Hopscotch vehicles is discouraged so as not to interfere with the performers in the tight space; Mr. King has inspired a number of violations of this policy.) We had leapt back to the beginning of the story, with the immediate aftermath of Lucha's collision with Jamison playing out at the center of a large vacant lot. As the live score was harped and vocopercussed inside, the limousine circled and circled the two singers, a long tracking shot in our vehicular pelicula. The singers, wired and mic'd, performed the scene in the open air, their voices transmitted to us through the car's sound system.

And on: in the next car, to a recorded accompaniment, Lucha at mid-story received the first mysterious phone call (which will prove to be from herself, as witnessed by travelers on a Route other than ours). And out of the car. And into the sky: it's an ascent by elevator and stairs in the company of two Luchas (old Lucha sings, young Lucha violings) and two French horn-wielding Orlandos to the roof of an Arts District loft building where the Views Go On For Days and two distant brass players—can it be/of course it is Jameson, perhaps from beyond—carom fanfares off the cityscape in Chapter 33.

And down. And into the dark. Literally: Chapter 24, involving hellish visions derived from Lucha's encounter with a red notebook containing notes from the vanished Jameson, occurs in sound and motion only, the limousine equipped with blackout curtains depriving the traveler of any knowledge of where or how the route is continuing.

Hopscotch - Lucha Jameson and Accordionist

And into the light: We have come some miles, back to Boyle Heights and back into the past, to Hollenbeck Park, where accordion and some convenient players in a lakeside gazebo contribute to the magic moment of Lucha and Jameson's first kiss. When the next vehicle arrives, it contains the most vast and encompassing of all those yellow Lucha dresses, which in turn contains the youngest of Luchas: an emanation of the mid-life Lucha recalling her quinceanara. This Lucha is accompanied by three gentlemen with a menagerie of Mexican guitar variants. When this Chapter ends, we find ourselves glancing in and out the windows, between the musicians of the opera and the real-life itinerant music makers waiting to be hired at Mariachi Plaza.

And aay into the final stretch: a stroll across the Plaza—past the statue of Lucha Reyes, whose namesake the fictional Lucha is, and past a hopscotch layout chalked on the concrete—to witness a recalled encounter in a bookstore between Lucha and the young Orlando, devoted to art and poetry. The young man wanders out, and we follow to enter the final limousine. While his reads aloud, his opera-ending older self comments, through an in-vehicle cellist and a recorded voiceover, on how well it has all worked out for this young fellow.

And we are done. Deposited back to the original parking lot at Casa del Mexicano, beneath the sky of piercing and extravagant blue that is a particular Los Angeles speciality at this time of the year.

Hopscotch - the story goes on as the audience leaves

Was it a stunt? Surely. Does Hopscotch rise above mere stunthood? Yes, I would have to say it does. But how and in what sense? That's a harder question.

Hopscotch is a thing I am very pleased to have done. It was a marvelous time, in the most literal sense: I marveled again and again at what was attempted and what was achieved. As an experience, and as a series of striking and unexpected effects, it is without question a success. The performers are uniformly fine. It is a consuming force while it is happening. It makes me happy that it was made, and particularly that it was made under conditions that allowed me exposure to a piece of it.

What is less clear to me is what Hopscotch means, or where it leads, in the larger world.

The number of people who will be able to take even one Route during the run is relatively small: capacity is roughly 300 per day. The number who will run through two, or all three, is far smaller. Some unknown number, very possibly a larger one, will be able to access a version of Hopscotch via the Central Hub. The most generous total, though, still would not exhaust the nosebleed seats at Staples Center [capacity ca. 18000]. Once it is gone, it is reasonable to expect that Hopscotch is gone forever. Remounting it here, while hardly impossible, is simply not likely. Adapting it to some other city, or to a more conventional theatrical setting, fundamentally undermines its reason for being in the first place. 

Will Hopscotch prove to be an inspiration or catalyst to other, perhaps stranger and more ambitious, new opera or theater ventures? Will it be an exotic sport of nature, viewed in retrospect with stark amaze, but not a path to anything else? I find that I am not prepared to venture even an uninformed prediction on those lines. Certainly, I suspect that The Industry will take its essential success as a sign that the company should fare further forward, toward whatever still-unimagined thing comes next. That should be fun.

~~~

Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted to ♬ Genre, I'm Only Dancing ♬.

~~~


Dog Days in Los Angeles

Dog-Days-15206-639

David T. Little's opera, Dog Days, which premiered at Peak Performances in New Jersey in 2012 to significant acclaim, made its west coast premiere last night under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera in its new collaborative initiative with New York's Beth Morrison Projects. I attended the performance, and I have written about it in the fool musical annex:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the End Times

~~~


Starlets and Bible Black
[Gavin Bryars: Marilyn Forever, Long Beach Opera]

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Marilyn Forever, composed by Gavin Bryars on a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, received its U.S. premiere last Saturday evening via Long Beach Opera. Whether the world in fact needed another artful meditation on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe is open to debate. It has in any case been given one. Marilyn Forever must be judged a success on its own terms, and the production that has been devised by LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek shows it to greatest advantage, with richness and detail to burn. 

Bowering has based her libretto on her 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You, so its methods are those of a free-form song cycle more so than of dramatic narrative. The poems frame a multiplane view of the figure of Marilyn Monroe as she contemplates or re-dreams her life at the time of her death. The well-known beats are revisited: her lonesome childhood as Norma Jean Mortenson, stardom and sex appeal, the marriages to Joe DiMaggio and (particularly) Arthur Miller, singing "Happy Birthday" to the President, her fatal embrace of drugs and alcohol, and so on. Through those reflections, Bowering searches for the woman within the archetype, and reintroduces us to her as one (to paraphrase The Smiths) who was human and who needed to be loved, just as anybody else does.

Bryars' score is for two small groups: an onstage trio of piano, saxophone and bass, and an eight-piece pit ensemble of low strings, winds and percussion. The composer himself played the bass part at Saturday's performance. The primary musical line slips with agility between the two groups of players, the trio deploying a 1950s-styled mix of jazz (saxophone solo included) and popular song styles and the pit orchestra swimming in broad and darksome minor harmonies, riverine and unresolved, melodic by allusion rather than by declaration. It is not difficult to imagine that only modest retooling would be needed to remove the singers—although Bryars has established himself as a gifted writer for human voices—and to reveal an evocative and intriguing instrumental piece.

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Marilyn Forever premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2013, and has since been performed in Australia as part of a recent Bryars survey/tribute at the Adelaide Festival. The Long Beach production for this U.S. premiere is entirely new.

As written the opera calls for a cast of four: Marilyn Monroe herself and the "Rehearsal Director," who also serves to represent some of the men (and the role of men generally) in her life, plus a two-man chorus referred to as The Tritones. Director Mitisek's innovation is to divide the role of Marilyn between two singers, one for the brightly hued public star and one for the vexed and troubled private woman. 

Mitisek splits the stage as well. A lighted makeup table serves as divider, the public life playing out largely stage right (in front of the jazz trio) while stage left alludes to the guest house bedroom in which Monroe's body was found. Public Marilyn begins the opera in her bedroom, before quickly passing over into the world. Private Marilyn emerges, rather unexpectedly, from beneath the rumpled bedclothes, and never leaves her room with its scattering of old photos and the company of a motley assortment of  flasks and bottles. At the opera's end, the two personae rejoin, seated on the bed, still alone but alone together.

Set walls and scrims serve as well as projection screens, bearing posed and candid photos of incidents from Monroe's life as well as live video from the stage. The video originates with several fixed positions, plus handheld cameras operated by the two Tritones. The video overlay is immersive and potent, especially when capturing small details from the stage and juxtaposing them to add point to a larger line or gesture.

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Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond are, between them, Marilyn Monroe. The division of the part between two singers works so well in this production that it came as a surprise to many in the audience that the role is not in fact written that way. Both performers initially learned the entire role, working out the final apportionment of lines and sequences through exploration in rehearsal. Chamberlin's public star sings in a high register, evoking an enriched and variegated version of Monroe's own singing voice. Portions, at least, of the vocal line assigned to Bond's private Marilyn seem to have been transposed slightly downward toward a darker mezzo range. Each of the singers fully commits to her assigned facets of the character, and each can be said to be First Marilyn Among Equals.

[Update: I have it on excellent authority - Facebook comments from the singers - that in fact nothing was transposed or altered in the score. The role of Marilyn is written such as to encompass both soprano and mezzo: the way in which the part was divided for dramatic purposes served, by happy coincidence, to play to the strengths of the two performers.]

Lee Gregory (the Captain in last season's Death of Klinghoffer) brings admirable clarity to distinguish among the half-dozen (or more) men he is called upon to symbolize, including the gruff but supportive Rehearsal Director, bespectacled and beloved Arthur Miller, and the occasional unsavory Hollywood casting couch type. The Tritones (Robert Norman, Adrian Rosales) ably provide such choral support as the score requires, and they are indispensable to the seamless workings of the video schema. 

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Opera often concerns itself with retelling old stories and Marilyn Forever—an unfortunate title, really, that makes a serious minded and affecting chamber opera sound like a feel-good jukebox musical—does not hold itself out as offering any new and shattering insight into its subject. That may be for the best: even before her death, and certainly in the fifty-three years since, Marilyn Monroe has been appropriated, claimed, and retooled by so many hands with so many agendas of their own that offering her up as no more than a human woman alone with herself is less a reduction than it is a show of respect. 

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Marilyn Forever receives a final performance at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro (albeit without the composer as a player) on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

Photos above by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

Cross-posted at Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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A bonus photo: the actual Marilyn, in a smoky nightclub situation in the company of Donald O'Connor and Cole Porter, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, January 1953.

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Antoinette of the Spirits, or, The Beaumarchais Strategem
[The Ghosts of Versailles, Los Angeles Opera]

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A magpie's trove in a hall of mirrors, its shiny borrowings gleaned across space and time and worlds natural and supernatural: John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is now on offer as part of Los Angeles Opera's sprawling "Figaro Unbound" initiative, with two performances remaining. It is a rewarding thing to commune with these spirits.

New York's Metropolitan Opera commissioned Ghosts to be premiered in 1983, for the company's 100th Anniversary. In light of the occasion, it was to serve not only as an opera in its own right, but also as a gala opportunity to showcase a number of the Met's then-reigning and rising stars. The enormity of the resulting piece was such that the Met itself has yet to revisit it—a planned 2010 revival was scrapped when the U.S. economy went reeling downward—and such other productions as have been attempted (in Chicago and St. Louis) have been of reduced or chamber versions. The current production in Los Angeles is the first to take on the complete version since its premiere.

The institutional neglect of these Ghosts is unfortunate because Corigliano, with a meticulous tightrope-walk of a libretto by William M. Hoffman, devised a piece that can stand solidly as an opera, as a love letter to all opera, as a spectacle, and as emotionally resonant theater. Ghost story, opera buffa, love story, melodrama, pageant and more: Ghosts is a bumblebee, a creature that should not fly but does, an edifice that should collapse of its own weight and yet floats off to the Empyrean when all's said, as lightly as a Montgolfier balloon (the concluding image in this production).

The plot? It's complicated, even by 18th century opera standards:

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The audience in the material world is made privy to events in the spirit world, possibly going on at this moment. The ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and others of the French court, executed by the Revolution, languish and are bored. With them is the ghost of the equally dead, but not beheaded, Beaumarchais, the author of the Figaro plays, the two most popular of which—The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro—served Rossini and Mozart as fodder for equally popular operas, which will themselves be returning to the L.A. Opera stage in short order.

For the love of the mournful Marie Antoinette, Beaumarchais grandly proposes an entertainment, a new recounting of further adventures of the beloved Figaro and company.  By this means, the poet announces, he will do more than merely amuse. He proposes in fact to Change the Course of History and to permit the Queen, whom he loves, to escape her rendezvous with the guillotine. The living audience watches the dead audience watching fictional characters tampering with actual history in an opera within the opera. 

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On the inner stage, it is some twenty years after Figaro's Marriage. Figaro, it seems, continues to serve Count Almaviva. The Count is engaged in a Pimpernel-like scheme in which a fabulous diamond necklace of the Queen's will be sold in secret to the English ambassador to Paris, during a reception at the Turkish embassy. The proceeds of the transaction will fund the Queen's rescue from imprisonment and her escape to the New World, specifically to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Almaviva's trusted friend Begearss—in fact an unrepentant villain in the tradition of Iago—awaits his chance to betray the Count into the lethal hands of the Revolution. And, of course, there are marriages to be arranged or thwarted.

All goes as planned until Figaro, having snapped up the necklace during the  hubbub of the Turkish revels, rebels against his creator and refuses to use the jewels as intended to save the Queen. He will keep them for his own, to deal with his innumerable creditors. He has achieved Pirandellian self-awareness. He knows he is a beloved character—"Your Figaro!"—and that this is what his audience would expect of him and what he himself desires.

Outraged, Beaumarchais is obliged to invade his own fiction in an effort to reassert his authorial will. Ultimately, in an effort to persuade Figaro to return to course, Beaumarchais restages the trial of the Queen. Figaro relents, the dreadful Begearss receives his comeuppance, and all of the fictional characters are saved. The real/ghost Queen, however, elects not to change her own past. She finds that she is reconciled to history, and in the company of the loving Beaumarchais she achieves a sort of apotheosis.

Beaumarchais's proposition proves to be the same as Shakespeare's in the sonnets: that the love of a poet or artist may grant to the beloved, through art, a sort of immortality when life itself cannot. It is, perhaps, the only immortality there can be for such fleeting creatures as humans are.

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This new Los Angeles production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose previous work with Los Angeles Opera has been as part of the "Recovered Voices" project, including Alexander Zemlinsky's marvelous, heartbreaking The Dwarf.   To the larger world, he may be better known as the recent Tony Award winner for directing The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Tresnjak's management of stage traffic alone is an impressive thing, given the multiple stages, nesting plots and large-scale set pieces Ghosts requires. The sets are looming and luxuriant, the costumes sumptuous, the spectacle fully spectacular. Ghosts is a madly overstuffed thing, scintillant of surface but secreting resonant emotional depths. Its every corner packed with detail, it resembles in many ways Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchhausen, not least in its pitting of love and the spinning of upwardly yearning yarns against political calculation and callous destructiveness. (That, and they both feature heads floating about independent of their bodies. But I digress.)

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On a good night, the orchestra of the Los Angeles Opera is every bit the equal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, across the street. The Opera orchestra and conductor James Conlon are having very good nights with Ghosts, navigating a kaleidoscope of styles and moods effortlessly.

Among the singers, Robert Brubaker as the reprehensible Begearss is a highlight, earning a round of affectionate booing in his curtain call. In his company debut, Christopher Maltman brings dignity and scope to bear on behalf of Beaumarchais. Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette, is noble and sad. The show-stopping cameo role of the Turkish singer Samira, written for Marilyn Horne, is taken up with infectious glee by Patti Lupone, her Broadway chops in full effect, ululating and schticking it up uproariously in the mad comic finale of Act I. 

The Ghosts of Versailles is not what Wagner had in mind when he imagined the "total work of art" [gesamtkunstwerk], but in this production it arguably qualifies: music, poetry, theatrical wizardry, all brought to bear in a consuming whole. Its satisfactions are many, and they linger—hauntingly—long after the curtain falls and the auditorium is emptied of the living.

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Incidental Twitter notes:

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The Ghosts of Versailles continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with performances February 26 and March 1.

Photos used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended this performance as a Los Angeles Opera subscriber.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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Oui, elle regrette tout
[Thérèse Raquin, Long Beach Opera]

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Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867) is lurid, unrepentantly tawdry, and a potboiler at its core, with all the lust, loathing, murder, desperation, and squalor that implies. It's trappings even include the visitations of an aggrieved and vengeful ghost. It would seem the sort of story destined from birth to find a place in the opera repertoire, and in 2001 composer Tobias Picker gave it one. Originally commissioned by Dallas Opera, and staged by San Diego Opera in 2008, on Saturday evening Picker's Thérèse Raquin opened the 2015 Long Beach Opera season. 

Zola offered his story as a realistic chronicle of squalid conditions and miserable lives in the Paris of his own moment. Director Ken Cazan maintains the Parisian locale, but moves the action forward some eighty years, to 1945-46 as the city, with the rest of Europe, struggles back to life from war and occupation. As conceit go it is a good conceit, and the mid-century look of the production also quietly evokes an American literary parallel: the novels of James M. Cain in which, as in Zola, characters are ground down by their own mistakes or, as commonly, by societal and family conditions they did not make, cannot control, and seem barely to understand.

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Zola's tale is pitiless: Thérèse was left at the age of three to be raised by her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin, whose life is otherwise devoted to ruling over her sickly son, Thérèse's cousin, Camille. It is foreordained that the cousins should marry. They do, and continue to live in the Raquin flat, where Thursday dominoes with the neighbors are the only unvarying variance in a dismal routine. Thérèse falls in with Camille's raffish office mate, the aspiring "painter" Laurent. Camille, inevitably, is murdered by the lovers: drowned in a boating excursion on the Seine. Laurent and Thérèse, still living off of Madame Raquin's widow's pension, marry and fall swiftly into debilitating mutual loathing and regret. Camille's ghost—given here an unforeseen Act II entrance worthy of Freddie Krueger—perturbs them mightily. At length, just as they are inclining to kill one another, they instead kill themselves. Tres jolienon?

Gene Scheer is the librettist, and he has provided a clean, efficient tour through the necessary events of the tale. The libretto is structurally sound as can be, but Scheer has chosen, inexplicably and with surprising frequency, to set much of the dialogue as loose-limbed rhymed couplets. While Picker typically avoids lapsing into sing-song to accommodate the rhymes (except when some of the supporting characters are actually supposed to be singing wedding-night doggerel), the too-obvious rhyme frequently threatens to undercut the seriousness of the characters' situation.

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Picker's score is also a clean and efficient thing, amply allusive without lowering itself to pastiche. Act 1, in particular, revels in evocations of Debussy and Ravel—Laurent's seductive anecdote of being "persuaded" to include a comely young woman in one of his pictures is a veritable  après-midi d'un  flâneur. The second act, post-murder, grows more angular, highlighted by Camille's "ghost aria," which borrows effectively from the bottomless melancholy of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. If it is not pioneering, the music is rarely less than an effective carrier of the drama.

The cast in this production, the majority in their first appearance with Long Beach Opera, are solid as can be. As a character, Thérèse poses the challenge of being far more acted upon than active; Mary Ann Stewart is amply sympathetic against the odds, grasping for a personal freedom she can barely imagine. As Camille, Matthew DiBattista effectively contrasts an ineffectual lumpishness against a bitter last fight against death and, finally, an urgent and physical grotesquerie from beyond the grave in the showpiece ghost aria. Ed Parks's Laurent is less clever than he imagines himself, casually unfeeling when he imagines he is being most sincere; not a bad man, but a man who makes very poor choices.

Suzan Hanson captures the misguided strictness of Madame Raquin, who never acknowledges her smothering effect on those around her. When her character falls silent, victim of a stroke induced by the discovery of Laurent and Thérèse's guilt (and a brutal confrontation with Laurent), she serves as silent foil to the guilty and to the oblivious as the drama snakes to its end.

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To their credit, Picker and Sheer have taken the supporting parts of the neighbors seriously, giving a fair portion of humanity to parts that could have been caricatures. Zeffin Quinn Hollis is the good natured gendarme Olivier, unable even to suspect the guilt of the killers, with Ani Maldjian as his touchingly rootless spouse. John Matthew Myers is the much-married, jovially clueless Monsieur Grivet.

All told Thérèse Raquin works well as an opera. If it's path through desperation and folly to death and confusion is not new, it is certainly well retold. As Bugs Bunny famously observed, "Whaddaya expect from an opera? A happy ending?" To which one can only reply in this case: Non, je ne regrette rien.

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Thérèse Raquin repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on Sunday, February 1, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Dancing.

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A Midsummer Night's Temblor

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Timing is everything. On Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera staged the long-delayed Los Angeles premiere of John Adams' I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, and the concatenation of that piece's concerns with contemporaneous events lent to it a weight and complexity that, frankly, it likely does not warrant on its own merits.

Ceiling/Sky, as it is often known, was created by Adams in collaboration with poet-activist June Jordan under the auspices of director Peter Sellars, which whom the composer had worked closely in the creation and staging of his earlier operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (both of which Long Beach Opera has performed in recent years). As with the operas, the piece takes a current event as its starting point. Premiering in Berkeley in 1995, Ceiling/Sky turns on the Northridge earthquake that thundered beneath the Los Angeles area the previous year.

Ceiling/Sky is not actually about the earthquake, which does not even occur until nearly two thirds of the way through the piece. When the seismic shift finally puts in its appearance, it serves as little more than a random opportunity for personal growth on the part of the story's seven characters, who by that point are as intertwined as they are ill defined.

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The dramatic frame of Ceiling/Sky is one that is by now familiar from a certain type of very serious and earnest film and television drama: a group of characters, each defined principally by ethnicity or gender or political affiliation and otherwise bearing little in the way of individual personality, are brought together through the altogether random intersection of their life paths. Here, a "young black man" named Dewain, with a history of run-ins with law enforcement, shoplifts two bottles of beer while enroute to see Consuelo, the undocumented Salvadoran refugee with whom he has fathered a seven-month old child. Dewain is arrested by Mike, an LAPD officer on patrol in the company of Tiffany, a television journalist who takes more than professional interest in his person. Facing a "third strike" that will send him to prison for most of his life, Dewain is represented by public defender Rick, the U.S.-born son of Vietnamese refugees. Consuelo has been receiving birth control advice from community activist Leila, who in turn is romantically enmeshed with David, a charismatic, if philandering, inner city preacher. There is then an earthquake. Lives are changed, deep realizations are realized—Mike the cop acknowledges and embraces his gay identity, for example, and Consuelo elects to return to political engagement in El Salvador. The story ends with the characters' life paths re-forking in their separate new found directions.

Twenty years on, the details have changed but the political and societal concerns at play in Ceiling/Sky remain sadly unresolved. The fraught potential of encounters between white law enforcement and young black men has been driven home again by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young Central Americans continue to cross the U.S. border fleeing criminal or government violence in their homelands. Even the earthquake itself became suddenly topical again when the town of Napa and surounding wine country were struck with a 6.0 shock within hours after Saturday's performance.

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Relevance and progressive politics, however, do not in themselves create credible theater. Ceiling/Sky ultimately fails as persuasive drama because its characters are barely more than stick figures bearing their identities as placards. Politically informed drama is hard to pull off, the weight of symbolism and rhetorical point tending to pull away from the compelling portrayal of actual humans. June Jordan did not navigate those hazards with nearly the success that was achieved by Alice Goodman in her (imperfect, but nevertheless more successful) libretti for Nixon and Klinghoffer

John Adams' score, on the other hand, is peculiarly compelling. Adams calls the piece a "song play," which could be taken as a literal translation of the German singspiel, i.e., the mix of high and low music theater traditions that yielded up Magic Flute. The magic and spectacle of Mozart are not on display in Ceiling/Sky, but the coupling of music hall, dance hall, and concert hall traditions certainly is. The 20 songs that tell the story swing and shuffle, groove and grind, with neominimalist pulse and drone as their dates for the evening, a pleasingly heady and singspielische mix of street and nonstreet strains. The reliance on electronic keyboards is occasionally too period-specific, verging on the cheesy, but not to such an extent as to undercut the entirety of the score.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducted the ensemble with exemplary skill, and the ensemble responded with what seemed to be as compelling an account of the score as could be wished. The performances of musicians and singing actors were across the board entirely compelling: better, really, than the piece itself. In a world full of mediocre accounts of great works, it was refreshing to encounter a strong and committed account of a less-than-great one.

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I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was a one-off performance, under the auspices of Los Angeles County's Ford Theatres. Which is to say, if you weren't there you won't be given another opportunity.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

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Nothing Is As It Disappears

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Long Beach Opera is not a company that regularly revives past productions, but it is currently making an exception with a return of David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which it originally staged in 2011. At that time, I foamed and raved more than somewhat in my enthusiasm for the piece and the performance. Revisiting it again this past weekend, I found it to be if anything even more impressive than it had been three years ago.

Below is a revised edition of what I wrote in 2011, with deletions, elisions, corrections, and additions as seem appropriate. There are only two more performances, for which tickets are (as it were) Difficult to obtain, but well worth the attempt.

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For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year. Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.

Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears. The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after. There is an inquiry by the law.  Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses.  Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law. What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”

The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002. The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion.  The text is by playwright Mac Wellman. Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic. In a pre-performance talk [in 2011], David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original.  Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves. Bierce, again:

Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . .  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production. (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted [in 2011] by Benjamin Makino [and in this revival by Kristof Van Grysperre].) The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another. Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melanchol. It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them. "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."

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For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person. * * * [T]he audience is seated on the stage [of Long Beach's Terrace Theater] and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond.  A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony. The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery. Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this [was and remains perhaps] his neatest scenic conceit [ever].

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The cast is uniformly impressive. Suzan Hanson * * * is mad again as Mrs. Williamson. She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb. As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.

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The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the [mostly new nine]-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one[, particularly Karole Foreman as the woman known as Virginia Creeper, the slaves' ritual centerpoint, and Michael Paul Smith as the unnamed field hand obliged to recite his masters' rules and regulations.] As [the house slave] Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did). 

Robin Buck * * * returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population. In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.

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Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson. Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn. Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.

So what, we ask, has actually happened? Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory? Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole? Beamed up by aliens? Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins? None can say. These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.

To return:  * * * Difficulty * * *[is] shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production [and left me yet again] in a condition of awe-struck wonder. * * * 

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Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, from the 2014 production; used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.  

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

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