Contrapunctual Music for Spoken Words Only
by Alessandro Cassin
It took 40 years for Robert Ashley’s The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity to receive a New York staging. The last of three Ashley operas performed at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, written in 1968, marks a starting point in the composer’s nearly 50-year groundbreaking process of creating a truly American opera format for of 20th century. This performance established it as a seminal work in contemporary opera.
Anne Opie Wehrer, who died in 2007, was a writer, performer, and one of the founders, along with Ashley, of the ONCE Festival of New Music in Ann Arbor. She performed the title role in the original production and collaborated on several other projects with Ashley as a member of the ONCE group in the 1960-70s. Among her experimental acting roles, she was featured in Andy Warhol's film Bike Boy. In 1974, she proposed to stage The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity at the Whitney Museum, describing it as a “living sculpture.” Only now, after the passing of both Ashley and Wehrer, has the opera finally reached the Whitney in Alex Waterman’s compelling new production.
In Waterman’s production, four artists, writers, and artworld personalities— Barbara Bloom, Amy Sillman, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Mary Farley— took turns playing the title role for each of the four performances, making each production drastically different. In the performance I attended, Mary Farley, whose most recent acting role was in Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl, played Anne Opie Wehrer with punctilious precision and biting wit. Her real-life experience as a forensic therapist and as a part-time resident of Marfa, Texas—a city often referred to in the text—enhanced her persuasive performance. Farley’s deadpan calm amplified Wayne Koestenbaum and Amy Sillman's relentless, brazen, often outrageous fireworks of improvised questioning.
This early “speaking opera” can still baffle audiences, forcing them to question whether an opera with no singing and no orchestra has any relationship to the grand European tradition from Gluck to Wagner. On a formal level, Ashley’s innovative approach pares the genre down to its essential characteristic: a vehicle for drama.
Yet this is an altogether different kind of drama. It does not originate in great historical, romantic, or tragic narratives and does not need elaborate sets and costumes. The protagonists are ordinary people and the plot is simply a slice of everyday American life. And yet, after swimming for two hours in a textually dense river of words, one is left with no doubts as to the intensely disquietingdramatic impact of this opera.
The trial as a setting for drama has a rich history in fiction and film. Here the structure evokes Greek tragedy: the proxies and cross-examiners appear as the chorus, and the main interrogator as the corypheus. Despite the title, we are not sure who the accused woman is or what her crimes are. The aim of the interrogators is not to establish anything beyond a reasonable doubt, but to open up questions, reflections, and layers of implications. Relentless interrogation focuses on issues of freedom of speech, surveillance, sexual preference, privacy, and intimacy—all topical today.
In the Whitney’s Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery, the audience was made to feel part of a hypothetical jury. The character of Wehrer sat in relative darkness, her back to the audience, in a white skeletal cage. In front of her was a microphone on a stand. Her hands were visible through a camera connected to a TV monitor in front of her and on a larger screen hanging to her left. Every now and then, the camera panned to reveal her profile. The tone of her voice was calm, unemotional, at times sarcastic, but never defensive. A blue light bulb hung over her head. A body length cantilevered mirror to her right and a screen with slides of different documents —a telegram, death announcements, society pages from local papers, a note from John Cage and announcements of the ONCE group performances—behind her on the right placed the piece in its temporal context.
Ashley was a master at combining formal structure with improvisation, which is among the reasons his operas maintain their freshness and relevance today. In this work, the chief interrogator had a list of 100 scripted questions—which may or may not all be asked in a given performance—while the performers improvised the answers and cross-examination. Though at times they referred to events or cultural figures of the 1960s, none of the questions seemed dated (with the notable exception of “Do you think you will be alive in the year 2000?”); instead they gained uncanny, involuntary humor. The content was brought to the present through Wehrer’s answers and the follow-ups of the sometimes hostile cross-examiners that included references to the internet and invasions of privacy. In other words, the “text” does not pre-exist the moment of performance; each night the actors create it spontaneously. This makes the opera perpetually contemporary.
The interrogators sat at a desk behind the audience while two “proxies” (stand-ins for Wehrer) and two cross-examiners sat in front of the audience, with their microphones on stands. The interrogation began with simple questions about family, habits, and places of residence, but quickly moved to more philosophical questions—requests to define concepts such as pity, vulgarity ,and prayer. Her answers were either interrupted, punctuated, or drowned out by comments, sarcastic asides, and follow-up questions from the cross-examiners. An additional sonic/emotional contrast was created between the mechanical, expressionless tone of the interrogators (similar to Ashley’s own acting) and the more animated tones of the cross-examiners. The cascade of questions and answers, pauses, and overlaying voices wove a cacophonous sonic tapestry that could be followed alternatively for its meaning or as pure sound. Speech itself, with pauses, pitch variations, and hesitations, became a nuanced musical score, building crescendos and diminuendos as the amplified voices emerged, overlapped, intertwined or fell silent.
“Working on this piece transformed my sense of the relation between sung speech and spoken speech,” Koestenbaum recounted. “I understand now how casual and improvised speech can be choreographed into musical shapes.” Discussing the way the 1968 text resonates today, he said, “In 1968 all four of us who played Anne were alive. The zeitgeist of 1968 is real for us, it is still in our bodies and memories. We share a sense of the experimental playful milieu in which Ashley and Anne Opie Wehrer lived and worked. There is a shared interest in tampering with the dividing line between art and life. On many levels, I live our performances as the transmission of a legacy; I think we are unearthing something from 1968 that has not been properly given a hearing.”
Expressing a feeling that resonated with the audience’s experience, he added, “The way Ashley creates arias and operatic ensembles out of improvised speech was new to me. I look forward to going out in the world just listening and speaking. And interpreting it as operatic.”
A few minutes into the opera, one realized how the apparently simple format of question and answer unleashed unpredictable parallel narratives, incorporating formal experimentation, meta-theatricality, and biting social critique. Ashley revealed his mastery in presenting insight and sociological acuteness through digressions and asides. The result is an idiosyncratic genre, aptly defined by his biographer Kyle Gann as “sacro-philosophic-comedic,” a genre characterized by a readiness to move outside the boundaries of standard definitions of art.
For anyone embarking in the discovery or re-evaluation of Robert Ashley’s oeuvre, The Trial Of Anne Opie Wehrer is a great place to start. The work exemplifies his approach to composing—at once archaic and postmodern—based on the interaction of human speech with technology, rather than on musical notation. Over decades, his fascination with sound, language, and the specificity of vernacular American speech created an original multimedia electro-acoustic world that, like the cantilevered mirror in the show, forces us to listen to the musicality of our daily lives.