One Body, by Berkeley-based composer John Kennedy was performed February 15, 2019 at Boston Court in Pasadena as part of their Winter Music Series. This five movement cantata combines texts by Walt Whitman, St. Augustine, Native Americans and several contemporary poets with the formidable vocal skills of Timur, the masterful playing of the Isaura String Quartet and multi-talented percussionists Yuri Inoo and Sidney Hopson. Conducted by the composer, this five-part work explores the spiritual implications of the earth as a living entity, divisions by species, the limitations of race and stereotypes of gender. The composer writes that One Body seeks to create “a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom.” There was hardly an empty seat in Boston Court’s Branson performance space despite the heavy Friday night traffic and a driving rain.
The five movements of One Body are performed without pause and all have a similar form. There is a prelude of string solos, quartet music or percussion, followed by one or more sung texts. Kennedy’s music is calmly tonal. This work strives for the transcendental and succeeds convincingly. The opening movement begins with a sustained, but ragged tutti chord, suggesting a formless chaos at the beginning of creation. The sounds gradually become organized as Timur’s voice enters with two sustained notes that float airily above the strings and percussion. Texts by Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen were sung, at times in greatly differing registers. Timur’s amazing range is capable of full baritone, tenor, countertenor and higher – all seamlessly connected with no breaks or boundaries. There is a comforting and uplifting feeling that persists over the entire work, and the lush harmonies in the strings, the understated percussion, and the expressive vocals all come together flawlessly. The text by St. Augustine, preceded by an expressive viola solo, was particularly appropriate:
If we are members of one body, then in that one body
there is neither male nor female;
or rather, there is both;
it is an androgynous or hermaphroditic body,
containing both sexes.
As the five movements continued, Timur moved gracefully about the small stage, taking up different positions. Although barefoot, his tall stature made for an imposing but never intimidating presence. At certain points during the string preludes and solos, Timur stooped to light a series of votive candles arranged in front of the quartet. This added a ceremonial dimension to a performance that, although devoid of overt religiosity, imparted a decidedly humanist and secular spirituality.
Movement II featured a particularly lush low register cello interlude. Later, the gently animated string quartet embodied Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem text, sung in this section. Movement III contained an extended stretch of subtle percussion that perfectly complemented the Mohawk prayers in the text. The singing here was particularly impressive, with Timur changing registers on alternate verses, jumping effortlessly from baritone to countertenor, and back again. Movement IV was perhaps the most dynamic, with strong percussion that subsided into a sweetly calming string section.
The final movement was preceded by yet another lovely string interlude, full of quiet assurance. The final text was heard first in the baritone range, a formal and declarative summation with just the right amount of ringing in the accompanying triangles. The singing was completed in the countertenor range, slowing and with just a touch of melancholy. A projection of what seemed to be a goddess was seen on the rear of the stage as the strings quietly faded at the finish. The stage went dark, and a full 10 seconds of silence followed before enthusiastic applause and loud cheering rang out from the audience.
One Body, despite its manifest brilliance, is fated to receive few performances, depending as it does on the uncommonly gifted vocal soloist. There is no way to break the various texts into the conventional ranges; if there were soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, it would simply cease to be One Body. There was some speculative talk in the lobby afterwards about mounting another performance. Should that materialize, do not fail to miss it. One Body must be heard to be believed.
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.