Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)
And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.
Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.
Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.
Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.
Say the word “lied” to the average classical listener, and they probably won’t think of a post-tonal heavy metal band roaring about gay sex in front of lurid, psychedelic projections. But audiences were treated to just that — among many other raucous, exuberant offerings — at last night’s 21c Liederabend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conceived by the Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt and co-directed by Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the 21c Liederabend project seeks to update the 19th–Century tradition of Schubertiads and liederabends for contemporary audiences, bringing in not just living poets and composers but also visual artists to create an immersive multimedia experience. Updatings of this sort sometimes feel like painful pandering to passing fads, but the 21c Liederabend was nothing of the sort. Rather than a gimmicky shoehorning-in of disparate elements, the evening was a gripping celebration of the possibilities of song at the start of a new century, an exploration of the range and capabilities of music and the human voice.
On entering the hall before the show, the audience was greeted not with the “instrumental warmups overlaid with chitchat” that usually precedes a classical concert, but instead with a pre-recorded playlist of the sort usually reserved for plays, rock shows, and other less stuffy occasions. It was a perfect choice. Without calling undue attention to itself, it set a relaxed atmosphere of openness, and, with a few carefully selected pop numbers mixed in with the rest, foreshadowed how far the concert would venture away from standard classical fare. A brief video skit involving a muppet and Deborah Voigt introduced the project, and then it was on to the first piece of the program, the world première of Juhi Bansal’s “Begin”, a setting of a text by Neil Aitken and the only work of the evening scored for voice and piano alone (performed exquisitely by Peabody Southwell and Richard Valitutto, respectively). Beginning with barely a murmur in the piano and the quietest of hummings, it is a leisurely, lyrical piece that takes full advantage of the time it has to build to its impassioned climax. Drawing inspiration from the life of Charles Babbage, the piece conveys the yearning desire of dreaming of a world half seen, as well as the loss that getting lost in such dreams can cause to the people around you. Radiant and transcendent in its final passions, “Begin” is a testament to the continuing possibilities of the voice+piano art song.
Next was a set of songs from John Adams and June Jordan’s 1995 “song play” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. These selections focused on the arc of Dewain, a black man arrested on trumped-up charges whose prison cell is rent asunder by the shaking earth. This was the first piece with amplification on the program, and it took a while for the balance to settle; from where I was sitting, the backing ensemble came close to overpowering the singers at times, though by the end balance had been restored. Adams’s music was at its dynamic, twitchy best, and felt constrained by the limits of a concert hall. During the “Song about the On-Site Altercation,” especially, the stillness of the actors felt like a let-down next to the tension and forcefulness of the music. Still, “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise,” a slow ballade from the second half of the show, gave me goosebumps for its entire duration, not least because of the plaintive clarity of Cedric Berry’s voice. (The slow transformation of the backing projection from a drab, decrepit wall to a pure and open sky didn’t hurt either.)
Going slightly astray from the printed order, this was followed by the world première of Jacob Cooper’s “Ripple the Sky.” The text was by Greg Alan Brownderville and incorporated snippets from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet alongside quotes from Robert Schumann’s personal diary from around the time of his 1854 attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine. Unsurprisingly, then, the music had much to do with death by water, but it was far from a programmatic depiction of ripples and currents. Backing the singer Theo Bleckmann was an ensemble of strings and electronics (including some pre-recorded vocals by Mellissa Hughes), and together they spun a sere, arid landscape, devoid of any breath of air. It was paradoxical, but it worked, capturing something of the vacancy and inertness of a deep depression — including that strangest of states where the world seems brimming over with undirected feeling and yet action is a hopeless proposition. Built on a foundation of uneasy drones and skittery gymnastics from the strings, “Ripple the Sky” is a gaunt voyage across a landscape of sun-bleached fragments.
Ending the first half were two songs from David T Little and Anne Waldman’s Artaud in the Black Lodge, an experimental music theatre piece imagining a meeting between Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and David Lynch in some kind of afterlife or otherworldly plane. Little described the work as his imagining of what would happen if a heavy metal band tried writing art songs, and the performance (by Timur and the Dime Museum) lived up to that, complete with punk-inspired haircuts and distressed and re-sewn black clothes. Timur was a captivating frontman, standing way out at the lip of the stage, embodying the spirit of Burroughs while singing about the modernist author’s cut-up technique and the time that he cut off part of one of his fingers to impress a man he had a crush on. In keeping with the heavy metal influence, there were moments of overwhelming grunge and noise, washes of white noise that spoke to the fury of war and the urgency of desire, but there were also moments of intimacy and tenderness, as when Timur/Burroughs crooned a delicate “take it – take it – take it” (referring at times to his finger and to his body in the guise of a sexual offering), echoing the gentle yet irresistible urgings of Peter Quint in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. At one point, lights above the stage shone out into the audience, and on seeing the still figures in upholstered chairs, I found myself doing a double take and biting back surprised laughter — I had quite forgotten my surroundings and was half expecting to gaze out on a stadium full of cheering, dancing bodies.
Variety was a hallmark of the second half as well. Leaha Villarreal’s “Never Not” (text by Adara Meyers) brought us back from intermission with a pensive, cryptic meditation. The projections for this featured what looked like decontextualized shots from 1950s makeup commercials and nature documentaries, which blurred together with the music to create an unusual atmosphere — it was as though we had traveled back from the distant future, turning our eyes on the 20th Century much the way we in the present look back at civilizations before the invention of writing. We have tantalizing fragments that suggest echoes of continuity with how we live today, but shorn of context, their secrets and stories are lost, and we grope towards their meanings forever in the dark. In a similar vein, this piece and its video seemed to make the present distant and unreal, shrouded in the mists of forgottenness.
Excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench (text by Jena Osman, pulled together from court decisions and ventriloquism manuals) followed, with members of the Los Robles Master Chorale presenting snippets concerning the fiction of corporate personhood and the financial ventriloquism of the current campaign finance landscape. Then came the world première of Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, Aokigahara Forest, and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the piece felt unfocused and also a little long for its surroundings. Even so, there were some arresting moments, as when a blown conch shell melded seamlessly into the breathy whisper of a solo flute, or the searing passage where Nathan Gunn sang of a desperate hope to find someone beloved after an unspecified disaster: “I wanted to find you./Even in pieces,/I wanted to find/And assemble/Those splinters of you.”
Next and last were two excerpts form Jefferson Friedman’s album On in Love, where he worked with poet and singer Craig Wedren to create a set of songs that each did one single thing, instead of his previous, more complex approaches to structure and content. First was the rowdy “Fight Song” that seemed somewhere between a hyped–up encouragement to a football team and a jingoistic incitement to actual war, complete with vicious sections in 5 and imagery of blood and conquest. Then, to close the evening, came “Tarrying”, an achingly simple paean to the Christian conception of divine forgiveness. After the dizzying complexity on offer elsewhere in the evening, such a turn to the plainspoken might have seemed an odd choice to conclude things, but in Friedman’s hands, simplicity became transcendence. The final stanza of Wedren’s text is an unadorned repetition of the word “please”, a condensed prayer sent heavenwards with no caveats or conditions. A request for forgiveness, shorn of all explanations of extenuating circumstances. Earnest, despairing, profound. The projections overflowed their screens, painting every surface in Disney Hall red, blazing with holy fire.
I have groused in the past about concerts that don’t plan anything to cover extensive set changes, thus losing the audience’s attention and promoting tedium, so it seems only fair that I give praise when a creative team avoids that trap. To cover for each of the (many) set changes throughout the evening, pre-recorded videos of the composers talking about their work played, keeping the audience’s attention and providing interesting and illuminating context and commentary on what we were about to hear while stagehands scurried around moving chairs, stands, and pianos. The result was a truly integrated concert experience, one that felt like it had been consciously designed on every level from start to finish; I wasn’t watching a bunch of pieces that might be good in their own right surrounded by buffers of boredom, I was watching a show. This also had the curious effect of lifting my enjoyment of some of the program’s weaker pieces; since everything flowed seamlessly along a clear trajectory, each individual piece on the program became part of a greater whole instead of having to stand or fall on its own merit. There were a few glitches here and there (usually when the audience clapped long enough to produce a second round of bows, forcing the lights crew to hastily rewind back out of the set change lighting), but I hope that those don’t dissuade others from taking this approach. Planning out the logistical details at this level can be tedious, but it makes a difference, and I hope I see more groups embrace this level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity.
I can imagine no better way to be introduced to the LA Opera than by this show. I had no idea what to expect, only hope that it might be a nice way to spend a Friday evening. Of all the shows in LA, I figured I might as well check out something brand new. I was in for a treat.
Isabelle Eberhardt, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Fischer, had several distinct lives and deaths, recollected through cobbled diary pages. Missy Mazzoli wanted to give her a proper homage through equally cobbled yet bleakly beautiful music. Using distorted guitars, stuttering electronic sounds, pure voices, and a wailing cello and flute tell Isabelle’s tragic stories. Videos on transparent scrims add further layers of emotion to the story, complementing the music. The chorus sometimes acted as a reflection of Isabelle, and other times sang duets with her. The musicians and their instruments were as much characters in the story as Isabelle. The cello cried, the flute sang, and clarinet drank coffee and the piano just drank.
One of my favorite moments was when Isabelle moved off her pillow in an opium den and sat with the pianist on his bench. He abandoned her there, and she carried on the tune the best she could. A melody usually implements small intervals for easy singing, but the song in the opium den had enormous intervals, which I imagined represented the highs and lows of drug use. My favorite song overall was “One Hundred Names for God,” when she goes through her religious phase near the beginning. The choreography was stunning, and the many different names dripped like glittering water from Isabelle’s mouth while the instruments lilted along deferentially.
Other songs featured amplified flute signaling a period of exploration, and guitar performing a heartbeat emulating blood rushing to one’s ears in a moment of high tension and fear. At the very end, when Isabelle dies in a flash flood, the guitar swells and grows like a physical presence, and cuts short the instant her life does. This perhaps sounds cliché, and rereading this review sheds light on what made the music so subtly effective in the moment. It’s a silken beauty like seeing the ocean in the moonlight that makes one wax poetic and at the same time fail to find the words. Through such a short but intense opera, the audience falls in love with Isabelle Eberhardt and our hearts break when the music ends her life.
In short, I cannot rave about this opera enough, especially the musicians. It only ran for the one weekend, but there will be many more performances by the LA Opera and from the Beth Morrison Projects this season. Buy your tickets early!
I get requests to post blurbs about fundraisers every now and then, and am happy to do it to help people out. I like it when people are able to make things that they want to make. Most of the time I give these requests a quick look, skim through any video, post a blurb, and hope for the best for them. With Timur & The Dime Museum‘s video for their fundraiser to record Daniel Corral’s COLLAPSE, I actually found giving it a full-attention watch (omg, internet age ADD) was totally worthwhile. There’s a part where Timur is a robot.
If you’re not familiar with the band, there are a ton of live clips in it, with good information on what they’re up to. This project, which they worked on with Beth Morrison, has gotten a lot of attention, and its well-deserved. Also, Timur is a robot. Did I say that already?
Here’s the video. Go to http://www.timurandthedimemuseum.com/collapse to help make this record happen.[vimeo http://vimeo.com/108973643]