Monday, April 13, 2009

Two avant-garde operas in NYC

I'm not an opera fan, unless speaking of rock operas by the Kinks, however I had the opportunity to see two of the world's premiere experimental theatre companies take on the operatic form while in NYC last week. Here are a few reflections on the avant-garde opera experience.

Astronome, a Night at the Opera at the Ontological Hysteric Theater is now over, but received a great deal of positive attention from the NYT, the Village Voice and even the Wall Street Journal. A collaboration by Richard Foreman and John Zorn, the piece is a visual construct to Zorn's music. Audience members were warned about the intensity of the music they were about to hear and we were all given ear plugs just in case we needed them. A voice over at the beginning gave a very physical almost sensual description of how to insert the plugs into the ears. I chose not to use them -- hell, I'd once made it through a Ramone's concert standing next to a huge stack of amps without evident harm.

The music turned out to be loud but not painful, in fact it was quite good. No warnings were given about the visual content to which we would be exposed. I found it to be more shock-filled than the music. The set was filled with an intensity of props that one began to contemplate before the action began. At one side of the stage was an enormous nose, with bristling black nose hair coming out of the nostrils. Various objects went into the nose at certain points during the piece. Tarot cards were strewn over the floor, and a model of the Hanged Man dangled from above. Scrawled writings in English and Hebrew were chalked on the walls and other surfaces. Opposite the nose on the stage side, was an area divided off by Plexiglas, behind which an actor with a green face and a mohawk created by amazingly tall feathers lurked, occasionally coming out to scream to the music.

Five other actors interacted with the music and the props. There was a man who looked like an Egyptian Pharaoh, and another who wore a fez and a kilt. The costumes were all very bizarre. Most of them wore nose masks and some of them wore veils. Their actions were completely choreographed and not at all improvised. I know this because one of the actors happened to be a former student of mine. His description of the rehearsal process made it clear that what was seen was definitely the work of the director. What was his intent?

From the program: "What my theater offers is the ever changing image of human beings buffeted by forces that invade human life, hinting at the urges inside us all that are hopefully transcended, and may occasionally open doors to provide a brief glimpse of where we might better locate our spiritual selves."

I quite got the "urges" part of the piece and got a great deal of satisfaction watching the actions evolve. I particularly enjoyed the the physical responses one action might set off in the others. Didn't catch any glimpses of where I might locate my spiritual self, but that's par for the course. Didn't really matter -- there was more than enough there to keep me interested and for the most part, fascinated.

The Wooster Group continues to present La Didone at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn through April 26th, so you can still see this amazing infusion of mid 17th century Italian opera with mid 20th century Italian sci fi movie. As mentioned earlier, I really don't enjoy listening to opera much, but this one grabbed me big time! First of all, the music was much closer to the Renaissance than the typical bombastic opera sounds of the 18th and 19th centuries. And then the young woman singing the part of Dido was amazing. Her name is Hai-Ting Chinn and not only did she sing her heart out, she had incredible stage presence.

Add in the amazing ability of the Wooster Group to recreate live actions from video recordings and you will experience an opera like no other! The movie, Planet of the Vampires, finds two space ships investigating a signal from the planet Aura. Scenes from the movie flicker on video screens placed about the stage. Both casts are dressed in really slick silver space suits and intermingle throughout. A table and desk roll into the action, and one gradually realizes that the rolling furniture mimics the effect of the camera pan shots in the movie clips. Exquisitely timed, the sci fi actors roll into position and pick up the action shown on the video screens. Over on stage left, is a miniature green screen set up where a technician puts on different hand and arm treatments to become interposed hands that appear on the video screens as the actors on stage reach into the video screens to manipulate space ship controls that appear on the screens. Very clever!

The whole endeavor involved a huge amount of collaboration. Along with the actors and technicians, an amazing band consisting of keyboards, theorbo, Baroque guitar, accordion, Tambourine and electric guitar played the haunting score. Most of the actors doubled in both the Dido and Aeneas opera and in the Italian space opera. I've been a fan of the Wooster Group since the 70s (when they were known as the Performance Group), but this one is definitely the best yet. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte with set design by Ruud van der Akker and costumes by Antonia Belt, this piece is one that will linger long in my visual and aural memory banks.

No comments: