A Night at the Opera
New Shorts from Experiments in Opera, Featuring Hotel Elefant, at the Actor’s Fund Arts Center, February 9, 2013
(In which your intrepid musical reporter watches ten excerpted vocal works and fails to refrain from using the philistine term “caterwauling.”)
While we have many tangible examples of early visual and literary arts, our knowledge of vocal and instrumental music begins rather late. It seems that early cave-painting and female fetish-carving artists were pragmatic, creating representational art; authors were more creative, writing rhyming poetry—an inherently musical form—early on, alongside now-forgotten quotidian prose. But still, none of ’em were doing Rothko or Parlá or Cage (if they were, the archaeologists probably would’ve missed it), and despite recordings of the Ituri by Colin Turnbull and Tuvan throat singing, we only encounter vocal music scores about 3,500 years ago, in hymns worshipping—natch—Nikkai, a moon goddess, in Syria.
As the twenty-first century ramps up, vocal music has diverged into melodic, motive, and experimental classes. While elites have long decried the formularity of popular songs (Macklemore and Ryan’s “Thrift Shop” being the ultimate generic sample), many of these tunes are also danceable. When we think of the avant-garde, on the other hand, we’re talking about passive listening, concert-hall music. In this realm, the compositions of a long list of vocal music innovators, including Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kaija Saariaho (e.g., “Lohn”), and Georg Friedrich Haas are aging well, though they (and most everything else non-“classical”) tend to be underperformed and underaudienced.
Underaudience wasn’t a problem for New Shorts, a series of vocal-and-instrumental works presented by ISSUE Project Room and Experiments in Opera (the latter founded by composers Matthew Welch, Jason Cady, and Aaron Siegel), and held at the Actor’s Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn. The Center’s intimate theater was packed, including the stage-left seating. The program of excerpts of in-development operas presented one scene each by ten composers, and featured the musicians of Hotel Elefant, formed in 2011 by composers Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian. George Lam, Paolo Bortolameolli, and Meg Zervoulis conducted various works; Stewart Kramer, David Levine, and Lisa Proske directed. The performance was preceded by a panel discussion with the composers moderated by My Ears Are Open podcaster James Holt.
New Shorts opened with “End Times,” a scene from Adam’s Run by composer Ruby Fulton and writer Baynard Woods. In this darkly humorous pairing, Robert Maril, in perfect Paul Ryan drag as a televangelist in The Reverend Billy Noble Gospel Hour, and Elisabeth Halliday as an existentialist Weather Woman, competitively broadcast at the world’s end. The supertitles were brilliant if sporadic, and yes, Maril’s supercilious stentorianism and Halliday’s hailstorm caterwauling were archly atmospheric. When Fulton and Woods finish this one, I hope they’ll go on to the musical version of Left Behind.
Villarreal’s extremely unpleasant, undergraduate fantasy “A Window through a Door,” based on Door, an unfortunately award-winning abduction novel by Emma Donoghue, itself lifted from an unfortunately true story, was an insult to the audience and human dignity. Sadly, soprano Meagan Brus’s distrait delivery, Andie Tanning Springer’s violin, Michelle Lou’s contrabass, Peter Bussigel’s electronic playback—and Villareal’s score—were hauntingly beautiful, creating first-order cognitive dissonance.
In Siegel’s “The Collector,” the larger-than-life personality of actor Mark Emerson gave the minutiae of philately a star turn, as Emerson discussed South American political stamps and expressed nostalgia for mail. As one listened to his monologue, the music of pianist Kirsten Volness, flutist Nicole Camacho, and harpist Lindsey Warford melted away, functioning transparently—a neat trick.
Given humanity’s lust for schadenfreude, composer Joe Diebes and librettist/poet Christian Hawkey’s opera about the disgraced Milli Vanilli, WOW, may strike a chord. The genesis of the score was, according to Diebes, the infamous four measures of “Girl You Know It’s True,” subjected to “a range of permutation algorithms,” thus probably avoiding infringement claims and practically resulting in the chorus, “I am ashamed of” sung by Jonathon Hampton and Devin Provenzano, while Christina Campanella completed each skip-allusive repetition sentence in speaking voice, channeling Barbara Rubin’s shocking audience confrontations in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Hotel Elefant’s WOW ensemble included clarinetist Jonathan Russell.
Welch provided a change-up with his light, comic “The Three Truths,” a mash-up/send-up of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s Star Wars, in which Anne Rhodes as the histrionic tyrant Rx-1 demanded the title’s verities from seer-bot JCN-76, Jeffrey Gavett sang baritone, and actress Ann Heppermann rounded out the cast. Whether Welch’s minimalist, Glassian score was itself a send-up, homage, or sample of his musical predecessors wasn’t clear; that “The Three Truths” will make for delightful children’s theater is indubitable. Not every piece of modern music need be tailored to adults.
Surprisingly, listening to pieces by multiple composers isn’t considered confounding by musical audiences—indeed, this is considered the norm (museums are a visual analog). New Shorts may have tested the limits of this model in its ambitious presentation of ten vignettes with, of course, no thematic continuity. The resulting exquisite musical corpse was a stretch. The necessary reset device, which worked admirably, was a series of well-filmed (if slightly overlong) illuminating interstitial video introductions by the composers, directed by Proske. The videos also humanized the composers and connected the audience to them. It would be great—and educational—if every piece of music publicly performed could be so introduced.
The only disappointing performance of the evening was “Resonant Combinations,” by the resident éminence grise Robert Ashley. In a segment that ignored the vocal brief, Kirsten Volness played this less-than-minimalist keyboard composition, most reminiscent of a YouTube wag’s “Death Metal Cover of 4’33” (noting that the latter is hilarious). In a “group show” like New Shorts, a knockout, or at least a standout, is mandatory. Context matters: “Resonant Combinations” might be just the ticket for a piano-tuner taking Quaaludes, but in the Center’s auditorium it was, simply, lacking. That “Resonant Combinations” is a “sound sketch” for Quicksand, a work in development, will probably prove to be more than mitigating, this dismissal disrespectfully glib, and Ashley revealing yet another sonic frontier.
In Cady’s lighthearted “The Mother,” sung by mezzo-soprano Lisa Komara and soprano Erin Flannery, a struggling urbanite singer/songwriter daughter watched her retired mother become a pop-star guitarist. At this point, it became clear that the program’s vocals had an uncanny similarity attributable not just to the singers but also to the composers, suggesting a musical zeitgeist, or that Experiments in Opera is a collection of musically like-minded or, more likely, like-trained composers. In-jokes about gamelan orchestras and musicophiliac Oliver Sacks were in the air.
Jeffrey Gavett sang Justin Tierney’s promising “The God’s Script,” for which Jorge Luis Borges obligingly returned from the dead to provide the namesake libretto, and Borges’s jaguar leapt from the stage. “Script” featured a substantial complement of Hotel Elefant’s musicians: Nicholas Gleason on vibraphone, flautist Domenica Fossati, pianist David Friend, clarinetist Isabel Kim, Lou, Springer, and Warford.
Kouyoumdjian’s “I am a Fish,” vocalized by Seth Gilman, proved the maxim that one should never talk (or write) when one has nothing to say. That said, “Fish” delivered a certain minor-key pathos in its melody, and Hannis Brown’s identity-crisis libretto recalled both Brion Gysin’s famed concrete “I am” analog feedback loop and William James’s embarrassing nitrous oxide rantings.
The program closed with Gabrielle Herbst’s “Bodiless,” featuring “deconstructed text” (Herbst’s characterization) by French feminist poet and Jacques Derrida collaboratrice Hélène Cixous. Granting that New Shorts are works in progress, Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda’s contextually incoherent if visually ingenious tube-lit costumes (Alexander McQueen’s legacy won’t be threatened by either Balmaseda or artist Nick Cave anytime soon), and oxymoronic choral soliloquy were disconnected from the impassioned text, except, maybe, for the funereal, foundational note of musico-existential despair. Regrettably, emotive impact was deflated because most of the preceding pieces presented essentially the same discordance, albeit with more conventional lighting and less pedigreed text. The seemingly unison delivery of the soprano trio of Herbst, Ariadne Greif, and Lucy Dhegrae was most remarkable—and questionable—given the richness of the text and the opportunity to create innovative audible effects—such as tonal proximity or metric asynchrony—within the same vocal range, which one might expect would be the point of employing three sopranos. In “Bodiless,” Shawn Lovato played contrabass.
New Shorts should’ve been a lot to take in and process, and would’ve had it not been so musically homogeneous. Whatever the cause, the program—on the downside—seemed to reflect a lack of musical diversity—and thus creativity—that one might hope for from ten individual minds. Upside, the epiphany emerged that composers’ careers are truly journeys, that composing and writing vocal narratives require a lot of time and work and integrative talent, and that New Shorts are relatively “early works” from this cohort of mostly “young” composers.
Musicians, by the nature of their work, are collaborative. And while composers may work alone, the realization of their operatic works requires theatrical cooperation and the integration of a raft of complex elements. The works in New Shorts clearly demonstrated that the program’s composers, vocalists, and musicians are talented, fearless, and congenial. Seeing their works brought to fruition will be gratifying; seeing them in preview was a gift.