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.

Listening Listfully 2015 - Ars Gratia Populi

Gramophone in a French trench 1914


[This is the second, in posting order, of two Favorite Musickes of the Year posts. There is some repetition on the introductory paragraphs.]

In 2014, the end of December pulled a fast one on those, this blogger included, who produce "year-end" lists of the best, or of their preferred, recorded music of the preceding year: two notable recordings — Andrew Norman's Play from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Black Messiah, the entirely-unforeseen and long-awaited return of D'Angelo—slipped unceremoniously into the world, unable to claim their places of honor on the vast majority of already-published Lists. (Both of those recordingsa have been granted post hoc, de facto 2015 release status for my purposes.)

Now then, with only a few hours left for tricksters to drop new music in 2015, comes the time for what I calculate to be the Tenth Annual edition of fool in the forest's Listening Listfully: cataloguing album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain now as I always do that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many records of quality omitted here, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

For 2015, I have continued my 2014 practice of dividing the larger List in two, very roughly segregating these recordings by application of that old fugitive, "genre". Each list contains thirty (30) entries. Below is the portion of the List encompassing music that is essentially hip-to-be-hep-to-be-cool-to-be-Popular.. The other portion has been posted here.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 20 choices on each list, where possible through the invaluable Bandcamp, and otherwise through [hissss! booo! Compensate musicians fairly, why don't you?!?] Spotify. Bandcamp-linked recordings are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links. Buying music is good; do it often. 

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins The List:

1.    The Epic - Kamasi Washington

2.    Motorcade Amnesiacs – Sweet Billy Pilgrim

3.    Black Messiah – D’Angelo and the Vanguard

4.    Architect – C. Douglas

5.    Infinite House – Ava Luna

6.    Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

7.    Complete Strangers Vetiver

8.    Divers – Joanna Newsom

[Nothing embeddable available, likes she's Adele or Taylor or the Beatles or some such.]

9.    No No No – Beirut

10.    The End of the Affair – The Singleman Affair

11.    I Aubade – Elvis Perkins

12.    I Had Grown Wild EP – My Brightest Diamond

13.    Radiance & Submission – CFCF

14.    The Colours of Life – CFCF

15.    Currents – Tame Impala

16.    The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets – Van Hunt

17.    Edge Of The Sun – Calexico

18.    Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

19.    Vestiges & Claws- Jose Gonzalez

20.    Revolutions – Steve Cobby

21.    Takamatsu Station – Ava Luna

22.    Star Wars – Wilco

23.    Songs We Like a Lot – John Hollenbeck

24.    Fresh Blood - Matthew E. White

25.    All Across This Land - Blitzen Trapper

26.    Fear Ritual – Rollmottle

27.    Willow – Germany Germany

28.    Recollected Ambient Works, Vol. 1.5: Discreet Music – Kid606

29.    Recollected Ambient Works, Vol. 1: Bored of Excitement – Kid606

30.    Stench of Exist – Boduf Songs

Listening Listfully 2015 - Ars Gratia Artis

A gramophone in Queensland ca 1903

[This is the first, in posting order, of two Favorite Musickes of the Year posts. There is some duplication the introductory paragraphs.]

In 2014, the end of December pulled a fast one on those, this blogger included, who produce "year-end" lists of the best, or of their preferred, recorded music of the preceding year: two notable recordings — Andrew Norman's Play from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Black Messiah, the entirely-unforeseen and long-awaited return of D'Angelo—slipped unceremoniously into the world, unable to claim their places of honor on the vast majority of already-published Lists. (Both of those recordingsa have been granted post hoc, de facto 2015 release status for my purposes.) 

Now then, with only a few hours left for tricksters to drop new music in 2015, comes the time for what I calculate to be the Tenth Annual edition of fool in the forest's Listening Listfully: cataloguing album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain now as I always do that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many records of quality omitted here, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

For 2015, I have continued my 2014 practice of dividing the larger List in two, very roughly segregating these recordings by application of that old fugitive, "genre". Each list contains thirty (30) entries. Below is the portion of the List that slouches roughly into the "classical" or "art music" category. The other portion follows, here.

The cut is particularly rough this season: while a pure jazz album tops the "pops," a number of the choices on this more artsy List are nearly indistinguishable from jazz. Ben Folds is here despite producing what is mostly a pop album, because of his collaboration with yMusic and because he includes a full-on-entirely-serious Piano Concerto in the package. There is, as is frequently the case here, no escaping Shara Worden, who turns up in her own name, in her band name, and as a collaborator on at least four occasions spread across both of the sub-Lists. Et cetera. Go figure.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 20 choices on each list. Make what you will of the fact that so many here are available to play and to purchase via the invaluable Bandcamp, while I have had to resort to [hissss! booo! Compensate musicians fairly, why don't you?!?] Spotify for a larger proportion of its more popular twin. Bandcamp-linked recordings are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins The List: 

1.    The South Shore – Michael Vincent Waller

2.    Unremembered – Sarah Kirkland Snider

3.    Changing Same – Numinous (Joe Phillips)

4.    Dreamfall – NOW Ensemble

5.    Prism – Scott Worthington and Wandelweiser Bass – Scott Worthington

6.    Memory and Weather – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

7.    Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke – Nonsemble

8.    You of All Things – Jodie Landau [ft. wildUp]

9.    You Us We All – Worden, Ondrejcak, and B.O.X. Baroque

10.    Discreet Music – Contact

11.    Beams of the Huge Night – Will Mason Ensemble

12.    Glass Piano – Bruce Brubaker and Glass Piano Versions – Bruce Brubaker

13.    The Twenty-Fifth Hour - The Chamber Music of Thomas Adès – Calder Quartet

14.    Foggy, Foggy Dew – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

15.    Vespers for a New Dark Age – Missy Mazzoli

16.    Render – Roomful of Teeth

17.    Filament – eighth blackbird

18.    Conditional Tension – tholl / vogel / hoff

19.    PREAMBLE – Qasim Naqvi

20.    Dystopia – Michael Gordon

21.    Momenta Quartet: Similar Motion – Momenta Quartet

22.    Face|Resection – Matt Barbier

23.    Andrew Norman: Play – Boston Modern Orchestra Project

24.    Currents, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 – Yarn/Wire

25.    So There – Ben Folds [ft. yMusic]

26.    The Difficulty of Crossing a Field – David Lang

27.    This river so red – Tvärvägen

28.    Entwined - Jake Schepps Quintet

29.    Frank Zappa: 200 Motels - The Suites – Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen

30.    Anthracite Fields – Julia Wolfe

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


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


Mnemonic Tricks and Devices


The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Next on Grand series continued Friday evening with three  ensembles—the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, Ensemble Signal led by Brad Lubman, and members of wildUp with conductor Christopher Rountree—performing, respectively, a world premiere from Steven Mackey, a revival of a turn of [this] century collaborative piece by Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, and a previously unannounced al fresco percussion intervention. 

Steven Mackey's "Mnemosyne's Pool" is a five part, 45-minute whats-it (something of symphony? a touch of tone poem?) for the full orchestra, and brims with cunning musical goodness. It is not literally about the Titan Mnemosyne—a goddess of memory, lover of Zeus, mother of the Muses—nor is it about a pool, but its processes toy about with the pliable, labile, multivalent twitch and flicker of memory, and much of its musical material can be heard as waterborne and maritime. The composer's detailed program notes notwithstanding, the intricacies of the structural innards of the piece were not instantly fathomable by the ear on first listen, but the larger arcs and complementary variety of the components delivered satisfactions aplenty.

In five sections, "Pool" begins with a tolling chime and funereal chords, even a whiff of dies irae, but soon spreads into the first of its more liquid segments, turbid and glinting under threatening skies. The second section was vaguely Russian or Baltic, spiky and sprightly in the vein of early Stravinsky (think Petrushka, perhaps filtered through a mesh of Carl Nielsen strings and winds). The third and fourth segments are played without break, the former harking to American urbanism, the latter transiting from stately elegy to spartan threnody. The fifth and final section returns to watery thoughts, breeze driven under a cloudless heaven, before terracing upward to an extended boom and burst of an ending.    

WildUp drums up businessThe physical arrangements for the two halves of the concert were radically different—the full orchestral setup for the Philharmonic needed to be broken down and carted off, to be replaced by Signal's string quartet at the front, double pianos and extensive percussion at the rear, separated by a U-shaped platform for five roving singers—compelling an extra-long intermission. Enter wildUp. With the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, the ever-enterprising ensemble took to the broad empty space in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as positions across the street) to perform William Albright's 1972 "Take That" for Philharmonic attendees and passersby.

As written, "Take That" calls for four drummers managing sixteen drums. wildUp and company doubled the players and expanded the percussion battery to forty drums of all sizes, including a full dozen bass drums. With the musicians scattered over four stations around the plaza and intersection at 1st Street and Grand Avenue and a shortage of reflective surfaces, much of the sound escaped unheard up into the evening air. Still, a fine rolling and thundering was made before concertgoers returned to their places.

Steve Reich's "Three Tales" is a 2001 collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot, and falls into the category of Reich's works that are driven by the pitches and rhythms of human speech. When that technique works for Reich, as in "Different Trains," it produces profound and compelling music. When it does not work, however, the music loses its savor and interest under the dead weight of the words it tries to carry. "Three Tales," unfortunately, although performed rigorously and well by Ensemble Signal, ultimately outstayed its welcome by a fair margin, descending in its last two-thirds into a dulling and ponderous didacticism.

"Three Tales" draws on history and science, and meditates on humans, their technology, and how the two change or are changed by one another. The three events on offer are the 1937 explosion and crash of the German airship Hindenburg, the U.S. military's nuclear test detonations at Bikini Atoll in 1946, and the 1996 advent of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned adult mammal. The Hindenburg segment is actually successful for the most part, and Beryl Korot's video constructions are particularly well-tuned as they cross-reference the vastness of the made object and the comparative smallness of its makers.

The other two "tales" succumb to self-seriousness, particularly once passages from the creation narrative in the book of Genesis begin to be interpolated, flashing on screen in follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along fashion. Dolly appears only briefly in her concluding segment, which is more interested in trotting out interviews with now-familiar Deep Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minsky, and a disturbing baby robot named Kismet, to opine on the cybernetic, code-based nature of all earthly life. While the live singers and players were clear and well-balanced, the recorded voices of the interviewees tended to fly straight into the Disney Hall's notorious hostility to over-amplification. By that point, the video accompaniment had become little more than what Alfred Hitchcock famously disdained as "photographs of people talking." Better they should have left it at one tale.

Veronika Beryl Steve and Steven

Ensemble Signal, by the way, recently released a new recording of Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, a piece that stands as a permanent and unequivocal success. The Signal version is at least as worthy of a listener's time as Reich's own original recording of the piece. Recommended, both.

Next on Grand continues tonight and Sunday afternoon; "Mnemosyne's Pool" repeats on the Sunday program, on which Ensemble Signal will return to perform David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe's 2005 "Shelter".

Photos by the blogger.

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

John Adams and the New Power Generation

LA Phil Green Umbrella - Next on Grand - Disney Hall

Before debarking each summer to the poptoned jumbotronic precincts of the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has become partial to ending its downtown Walt Disney Concert Hall seasons with a themed festival of some kind, typically focusing on music of the post-war Twentieth Century or the endless-war Twenty-First. Last year at this time, it was a deep deep plunge in to the Minimalist Jukebox; the previous year honed in on the music of [mostly] contemporary Brooklyn and environs. Now, to conclude its 2014-2015 season, the Phil offers up "Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans." Over the course of this week, the Phil is rolling out no fewer than seven world premieres, several West Coast premieres, and a handful of other still-new, and all-American, compositions. The programming still skews East, and it still skews male—more so than one would expect: the Phil is better than most at commissioning new works by women—but it is new, new, new and, based on the opening night, promises much.

The launch of Next on Grand fell officially to the orchestra's Green Umbrella series on Tuesday evening, with the subset of musicians within the orchestra who are committed to doing the contemporary repertoire, and to doing it well: the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Under the direction of composer-conductor John Adams, Tuesday's concert featured three brand new works, and one nearly new piece, all  from composers at or under 35. It was a rich and satisfying evening. This blogger ate it up, and it has left him thinking about ... many things, which he hopes to take up in another post shortly. For the moment, though, a report on the Tuesday evening groaning board of musical excellences:

First up, Dylan Mattingly's "Seasickness and Being (in love)". Berkeley-born in 1991, Mattingly has made his early reputation through his work at Bard College, particularly with the ensemble Contemporaneous, which has recorded a collection of his prior work, Stream of Stars. His emerging voice as a composer grows out of the elaborately accelerating verve of John Adams, but is rapidly asserting itself in its own directions If we apply the test of wanting to hear it again, "S&B(il)" is a plain success. It builds on something of a trick—a second piano in the ensemble, detuned a quarter tone lower than standard—and then makes that trick itself disappear almost immediately into the weft and weave of the piece, anchoring its patterns. It subdivides, in retrospect, into three distinct segments: an opening driven by kinetic momentum, a middle marked by chordal washes moving about from player to player, and a final extended pointillist settling down to silence. I am hopeful that someone will record it, because the piece is worth wandering about and getting lost in.

The setting of text is a difficult matter. Christopher Cerrone has demonstrated a particular talent for it, with his opera Invisible Cities, well received here in Los Angeles—not least by this blogger—in 2013. "The Things That Fall to Earth" is a song cycle for sopran0—Hila Plitmann, last seen here altogether unrestrained and commanding in Zappa's "'200 Motels'"—drawn from seven poems by Kay Ryan, sung through as an uninterrupted series. Rich, fluid, always clear of line and supportive of the plain expression of the verse while maintaining surprise, Cerrone's music alludes in passing to the likes of Copland and Ravel, and to Debussy in its vaporous support of the text, but the tenor and flow of it is ultimately his own. It passes the lean-forward test: one presses in, wanting to hear each new sound plainly so as not to miss its import. A beautiful bit of work beautifully played and sung, first among equals for the night in my estimation.

Composers, looking composed

Jacob Cooper's "Alla stagione dei fior" opened the second half and stood out as completely different from the works around it. For one thing, no live orchestra was involved. "Alla stagione dei fior" is a video piece and its sights and sounds all derive from preexisting material. The title phrase comes from La bohème: with the certain knowledge that Mimi is dying, she and Rodolfo nevertheless resolve to stay together through the winter, "until the season of flowers." Cooper combines two brief snippets from an existing video of the opera, slowed and extended almost to the point of immobility. The principal image is the tableau at Mimi's bedside at the moment of her death, the focus moving closer and closer by the tiniest of increments until not the lovers' faces but the space between those faces fills the screen. In that space, Cooper sub-imposes the moment of the title phrase from the previous act, complete with flickering subtitle, broken into sections microseconds long and jerkily reblended. The soundtrack is taken from the existing video, but is digitally stretched to a long, resonant drone. The concentration and visual near-stasis, coming to a point in Mimi's expiration, recalls Bill Viola; the drone score reinforces that concentrated attention, extending it toward endlessness. (Jacob Cooper's song cycle, Silver Threads, with Mellissa Hughes is also based in drones, albeit far warmer and more changeable. Released by Nonesuch last year, it did not receive nearly the attention it deserves, in my view. It was my second-favorite recording of 2014, and I unequivocally recommend it.)

Sean Friar's "Finding Time", with which the evening ended, could as well have been titled "now ... this", as it bounded from musical idea to idea to idea without obvious connection or transition betwixt them, like a flipbook with its images disarranged. Each fleeting thought had something to recommend it, but each tended to leave the scene before the first-time listener had an opportunity to grip it. Beginning with bursts of jazz-inflected fragments, it ranged every which way, before stopping with a sort of hiccup. I was particularly taken with a passage toward the center, in which the players settled into what emerged as a Tristan-like mystic chord as though sinking into a beanbag chair, before bounding tangentially away. Again, a piece that would be worth a repeat listen, or several, if only to begin to sort its sparkly shards. 

WDCH - Green Means Go

Next on Grand continues through the weekend with, among other things, world premieres from Steven Mackey, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Andrew Norman. 

Photos: by the blogger.

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


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


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.



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.



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


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:

15130-623-P (1)

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. 


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.


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.)


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.



Incidental Twitter notes:


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.