Robert Ashley's Improvement, The Kitchen, February 7
Amidst the ongoing renaissance of contemporary opera in New York, the influence of the late Robert Ashley casts an ever-widening shadow. With vibrant companies such as Object Collection and Experiments In Opera, and annual festivals such as Prototype consistently injecting new ideas into the form, Ashley's idiosyncratic vision of opera remains a touchstone of the genre. His determination to make opera that is distinctly American, that takes into account the particular qualities of the English language, as well as our often problematic relationship to the classical music canon, resulted in a remarkable body of work that now informs a new generation of American opera composers.
Beginning with his first opera, Perfect Lives (1978 – 83), Ashley embraced the natural rhythms and colloquialisms of the language as we actually speak it, combining his characteristically American stories (he wrote his own librettos) with popular musical idioms and instruments. To realize Perfect Lives, and virtually all of his subsequent operas, Ashley assembled his own ensemble, a band if you will, comprised of unique personalities that brought these stories to life as only they could. At the time it was unimaginable that a Robert Ashley opera could be performed by anyone else, and until recently, none ever had. In his later years, the question of how these essential works would live on without him was increasingly asked by friends and fans.
One answer came in 2011 when the Varispeed Collective took it upon themselves to perform an "off-the-cuff, site-specific" version of Perfect Lives in Brooklyn. This led to a somewhat more formal second performance that involved the composer's active participation. Separately in 2011, a Spanish language production of Perfect Lives, titled Vidas Perfectas, was mounted, also in Brooklyn, by musician Alex Waterman. Later, Ashley developed a new opera, Crash (2013 – 2014), specifically for the members of Varispeed, for the first time leaving out the longstanding core members of his company. His final opera, or rather opera-novel, Quicksand (2014) was composed for himself and electronic orchestra and was posthumously premiered, with choreography, in 2016. Since that time, there has been little activity surrounding the Ashley operas.
In February The Kitchen presented a new production of Ashley's 1985 Improvement (Don Leaves Linda). The first part of a tetrology of operas known collectively as Now Eleanor's Idea, Improvement was originally produced as a recording, appearing on Nonesuch Records in 1992, with the apparent intention of eventually being produced for television, as had been done with Perfect Lives (Private Parts). That hasn't happened, but the work was eventually performed. However, for various technical reasons, the recorded voices from the commercial recording could not be separated from the recorded orchestra elements, and in the original performances (I attended a performance in Los Angeles in 1992), the singers had to double their recorded parts, resulting in a powerfully haunting choral effect.
The extraordinary cast then included Jacqueline Humbert, Thomas Buckner, Joan La Barbara, and Sam Ashley, all of whom would become core members of Ashley's ensemble in the years to come, and the memory of that 1992 performance has remained a high point of my concert going life. In this new production, which again features the members of Varispeed—Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Aliza Simons, Dave Ruder, as well as Amirtha Kidambi—the electronic orchestra has been reconstructed to exclude the vocal parts. The score has also been modified slightly, and Ashley's own voice as narrator from the original is partially retained.
In this production, the new generation of performers has impressively brought this classic back to life. The opening night performance went off without any apparent hitches, as the cast had clearly worked amazingly hard to master the complicated material. Bell, as Linda, carried the lead role with confidence, while McCorkle was every bit her equal as her counterpart, Don. The remaining aforementioned cast similarly held their own, and any doubts I might have had about the feasibility of this re-staging were quickly replaced by anticipation of future revivals. It led me to wonder if the other parts of Now Eleanor's Idea could also be restaged. In the hands of producer Mimi Johnson and music director Tom Hamilton, who together led this revival, everything now seems possible.
As satisfying as the performance was, a few differences between the old and new versions stood out. I was, for example, surprised at how quiet the performance was, remaining at what might be considered conversational volume throughout. My memory of the piece, conditioned perhaps by subsequent listens to the commercial recording, was of a more confrontational, gripping, and louder performance. The electronic orchestra, reconstructed as it was, also seemed diminished, lacking some of the detail and complexity of the original. Perhaps it was just the low volume and I simply didn't hear all of it, but it did appear that the pre-recorded material was minimized, which under the circumstances is understandable.
Additionally, the new production lacked some of the darkness and weight I have long felt in much of Ashley's work. Presumably that is due to his physical absence. My experience of him, though limited, was that he carried a rare degree of seriousness and gravity with him that came through in the performances, in which he was always a central figure. Seeing this new production was in some ways like seeing that seminal post-punk band from '81 that recently reformed without their original front man and lead guitarist. Sure, I enjoyed it, a lot, but if I'm being honest, there was a little something missing.
Nonetheless, Improvement is an absolute triumph, no less so in this new production, and hopefully in the future everyone will get the chance to see it. And here's hoping too for more new productions of Robert Ashley's seminal operas!
Dan Joseph is a New York-based composer, performer, curator, and writer. His Twitter handle is @dcomposer.