Mother of All Collaborations: The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf Debuts a Chamber Opera
Beth Griffith, playing Mother Ghost, sings:
I do not always remind you.
I am your mother.
I may have lost our money and sold your grandfather’s watches but.
I am your mother.
I put you in a car and took you around the entire country
because you should see a country you are born to.
I made the world better for you.
With her clear soprano voice, Griffith deftly navigates playwright Karinne Keithley Syers’s poetic language, composer Brendan Connelly’s difficult and haunting melodies, and the compelling accompaniment of new music ensemble Yarn/Wire. Connelly guides the musicians through his complex score; for this production, violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts join pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu and percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg. Connelly explains that the strings should creep in slowly—they are the instrumental ghosts in this “Ghost Sequence,” part of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf’s new chamber opera titled You, My Mother. Laryssa Husiak and Kate Soper play the ghost daughters, singing an airy birdcall: “Whee-ah.” Mike Mikos, as the son, relays a first-person narrative about a mother driving her three children “in a complete circle around America.” Projections, designed by Ahram Jeong and Yoonkyung Lim—in this case, a slide of Griffith’s own black and white family photograph—flash on the large screen behind the singers, their faces oddly illuminated, and the musicians’ shadows cutting jaggedly into the light.
The rehearsal, taking place in Yarn/Wire’s cold studio loft in Queens, is a run-through of the second part of the opera, which the Obie Award-winning Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf (2HC) will produce as part of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club’s 50th anniversary season this February. It is fitting that it is La MaMa that will present the world premiere of this meditation on the complicated relationships between mothers and their adult children, just as it is fitting that two women involved in the project—director Brooke O’Harra and playwright Syers—are both new mothers. Even so, or perhaps especially so, this ambitious piece of theater and its process present the company and its many collaborators with exciting, new kinds of artistic challenges.
Formed in 1999 in New Orleans by O’Harra and Connelly, 2HC has, in the past, based its dense, multi-layered performances largely on classic texts. For example, previous productions include three plays from the 1920s by Polish playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz (produced in 2001–2003)—their company name is inspired by his Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf—George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (2006), and Japanese dramatist Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s Drum of the Waves of Horikawa (2007). Their work, which derives from “a careful consideration of all the formal elements of Theater,” is always innovative, combining, for instance, cutting edge spy-cam technology with ultra lo-fi photocopied collage backdrops, or pairing a Kabuki-inspiredperformance style with a punk rock sensibility. In 2010, O’Harra and company staged an evocative production of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, a proto-feminist play from 1916. In this piece—which takes place in the kitchen of a farmhouse—the women characters are able to intuit the circumstances of a murder by interpreting household “trifles,” whereas the men are not. It was this play that sparked O’Harra’s interest in the domestic, what she describes as an attention to things “smaller and subtler.”
As the company evolves, the integration of music in its productions remains a constant—Connelly has scored all of 2HC’s work. He always wanted the company to create an opera, to trigger a collaboration with music rather than text. His desire to make music the focus of a piece combined well with O’Harra’s interest in exploring domestic situations and the familial; the seeds of You, My Mother were sown.
The process of creating the opera began with O’Harra, Connelly, and Husiak (a longtime company member and writer in her own right) jotting down notes and narratives about their relationships with their mothers. They passed these informal texts along to the two playwrights, Karinne Keithley Syers and Kristen Kosmas, who mined them for ideas and formed them into libretti that were then passed back to the project’s composers. Connelly set Syers’s text. Rick Burkhardt, the founder of the Nonsense Company, known for his work in Three Pianos, scored Kosmas’s words for, among many other instruments, a toy xylophone. The company presented a workshop of the opera at the University Settlement last May, after which the playwrights adjusted their scripts based upon seeing and hearing them performed.
You, My Mother presents a challenge to O’Harra, who, throughout the rehearsal process, has had to learn how to effectively shape a text that is mostly musical, and not linear or narrative in a traditional sense. Realizing that the opera is more about the emotion of the characters as described by the text and the music, she has tried to “support the energy of the music,” attempting to “score that emotional landscape and not work against it. Not telling a story, but trying to hold these characters’ relationships.”
The opera also challenges the performers and the musicians to step outside their usual roles. Although Yarn/Wire worked with 2HC on Trifles, in You, My Mother they are an integrated part of the performance. During the workshop, O’Harra found that the musicians were naturally creeping onto the stage; she finally decided to fully incorporate them, using their large instruments such as the marimba and vibraphone as visual elements in the scenic design. After the workshop, Kosmas wrote the musicians into her text, in one scene, requiring them to interrupt the actors and change the course of the stage action.
The opera’s cast is comprised of two singers and two performers, all of whom both sing and speak in the piece. Vocalists Beth Griffith—who has worked with John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others—and Kate Soper—a composer and member of Wet Ink Ensemble—both bring their considerable musical ability and talents to this, their first collaboration with 2HC. Soper, for example, who is accustomed to putting together performances in a short amount of time, had to adjust to the longer rehearsal period. She finds the process sometimes frustrating, but ultimately productive. “In a show like this where everything is very collaborative,” she explains, “the director gets to see the piece taking shape slowly as the performers put it together and the composers and playwrights make changes.” Husiak and Mikos, on the other hand, are seasoned 2HC performers. They share a specific and clear vocabulary with Connelly and O’Harra, which affords ease and trust to the collaboration, although they are not specifically trained as singers.
The collaboration marks a new way of working for the playwrights as well. Syers, a playwright, performer, founder of 53rd State Press, and member of the Joyce Cho collective, found the opera “incredibly daunting to approach,” its subject matter “so private and so enormous.” Working from O’Harra, Connelly, and Husiak’s stories, she made “cutups of sentences and phrases” and combined them with material from “a hodgepodge of sources—including a birding identification book, a collection of pragmatist essays, and a book on child raising.” The final piece is comprised of “language that creates a field, rather than a narrative,” that “takes images rather than stories as the basic structure.”
Kosmas, a playwright and performer whose work has been presented at P.S. 122, Dixon Place, and the Ontological/Hysteric in New York City, as well as venues in Austin, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, had never “written with such an acute sense of responsibility toward so many other people.” Being given text from which to work, however, was productive. She explains, “Writing is always difficult, so I found it really helpful, and inspiring actually, to be given so much raw material at the beginning.” She worked with the narratives “very freely and associatively to make a kind of composite portrait of the mother of us all.”
Kosmas’s text, like Syers’s, is at many points beautiful and poignant. The mother (played by both Griffith and Soper), who seems to be very ill, makes a list of what she would and would not like to bequeath to her children:
I would like to not leave anything bad behind
I would like to not leave any
I would like to leave you my
Rose colored glasses,
My presidential china,
And my condo in Florida.
One exquisite moment stages the mother’s longing to hold on to her family memories, only to find them slipping away, lost, or blurred. Kosmas calls for a slide show in which no images, only descriptions and captions, appear:
[your father my grandfather] [your mother my grandmother]
[your father’s father]
[none of your mother’s mother]
[none of your father’s mother]
[party of some kind]
[wedding of someone]
The tone of You, My Mother shifts from moments of melancholy to moments of comedy, but its prevailing mode is celebration. In Syers’s piece, the children honor the mother by making and giving her small gifts. In Kosmas’s, thanks are offered to the mothers of various important, world-changing children in a kind of repeating chorus:
We would like to thank Anne Purcell Higgins for having Margaret Sanger
We would like to thank Betty Moffitt for having Billie Jean King
We would like to thank Mamie Kitt for having Eartha…
We would like to thank Dorothy Biondi for having Valerie Solanas
We would like to thank the teacher from Louisiana, or possibly Illinois, who gave birth to Ellen Stewart…
At its core, You, My Mother embodies dissonance, the friction inherent in the mother-child relationship, the conflict between responsibility to self and to others. The mother wants to be her own person, celebrating herself, as O’Harra puts it, to revel in “the ecstasy of motherness,” while, at the same time, she also wants to fulfill her children’s desires, to be what they want and need her to be. The children want to love their mother unconditionally, but, as adults, they recognize the flaws, the mistakes, and the disappointment evident on both sides of the relationship. This struggle, sometimes painful, sometimes freeing, mirrors that of You, My Mother’s creators—as they birth this ambitious project, the collaborators strike a balance between their own ideas and impulses with those of their fellow artists, to whom they are also deeply responsible.
You, My Mother by Brendan Connelly & Karinne Keithley Syers & Rick Burkhardt & Kristen Kosmas, directed by Brooke O’Harra, with music performed by Yarn/Wire + Strings, runs February 9 – 20 at La MaMa (74A East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Ave., Manhattan). Tickets: $25 ($20 for students and seniors) at 212-475-7710 or https://web.ovationtix.com. For further info, visit www.twoheadedcalf.org.
ContributorJessica Del Vecchio
JESSICA DEL VECCHIO is a feminist performance scholar and an Assistant Professor of Theater at James Madison University.