I Know Nothing About Opera
This month, I saw two pieces of “opera-theatre” as part of the Prototype Festival: Dog Days composed by David T. Little and Angel’s Bone composed by Du Yun. Both librettos are by the obviously versatile Royce Vavrek.
As a writer for Culturebot, I’m asked to respond to the work I see. Not review it. Thank God. It seems (to an occasionally repellent degree) that theater critics, those who really do aim to review, see themselves as experts. So let me be clear: I know nothing about opera. With the exception of a trip to the opera in Spain when I was fifteen, during the latter three-quarters of which I fell asleep, these are the first two operas I’ve seen. I am so far from being an opera expert, were I to attempt to speak authoritatively about what I saw, I would fail miserably. I will instead explain why my Prototype experience made me curious to continue my opera education.
Dog Days revolves around a working class American family in the throes of a basically familiar apocalyptic scene complete with looming government surveillance (cleverly rendered on an ever-presence screen), an undefined but apparently war-related crisis, and characters confronting their humanity in the face of a struggle to survive.
The onstage world stood in practically comical contrast to the bright, plush Skirball Center. There was the outline of a house, a table, a stove, an encroaching pile of refuse just outside. The orchestra was prominently framed, upstage center. Introductory scenes of domesticity suggested that this is simply life as we know it, but we learn immediately that there is something deeply wrong. Dinner table banter is laced with anguish and madness. The children are starving, and Mother is tormented and her legs won’t move properly. Father keeps bellowing at his kids to fetch him his rifle (and boy can James Bobick bellow — I mean that as a compliment). And of course there’s the matter of the homeless man dressed as a dog who keeps coming around. The story is told mainly through the voice of 13-year-old Lisa (played by a spot-on, vocally brilliant Lauren Worsham). And where story is concerned, not much happens, really. Based on a short story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, Dog Days is a painstaking journey through the seasons into debilitating starvation, during which each member of the family confronts the strange dog man (Lisa names him Prince). Is he a potential friend or a potential meal? Affection, anger, confusion, ambivalence, scorn — the members of the family cycle take their respective stances as they struggle to understand their morality, and desperately search for ways to sustain themselves.
A transcendent moment was Lisa’s second aria, “Mirror, Mirror,” where the barely-teenaged girl trembles in delight that her emaciated body finally matches what she understands to be society’s perception of beauty. She sings the entire thing into a video camera projecting her close-up in supersize on the screen above. It was the one moment for me that broke out of the traditionally presentational nature of the piece. Because why can’t opera be up close? Why can’t it be in your face? Why can’t it be a reflection of your 13-year-old psyche? Of course it can.
Angel’s Bone, erratically staged at 3LD Art & Technology Center, was an exciting departure from the fairly straightforward –albeit harrowing– Dog Days. After a haunting opening by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, who divinely accompany the leads throughout, we are introduced to the futuristic, slightly fantastical, angular world of Mr. and Mrs. X.E., a tense couple who discover two wounded angels and set out to nurse them back to health. Mrs. X.E. immediately succumbs to the lure of the angels’ mystical powers to use for her own personal gain and –in no uncertain terms– pimps them out to paying strangers. Mr. X.E. abides by her wishes and serves as a middleman in her dealings, only to fall prey to deep guilt and commit suicide in order to help set the angels free. It is all, interestingly, an allusion to human trafficking.
Royce Vavrek’s lyrics here were at once jagged and poetic, piercing and smooth. This was closer to a work of abstract expressionism in places, the music, lyrics, and stage business happening in a sort of unfocused fury (especially where the use of projection was concerned — it seemed occasionally obtuse, but effectively added to the commotion). It was like reading poetry and realizing it is best to just let it wash over you. The meaning sets in eventually, but the sonic and visual landscape in front of you are deliciously intangible.
I have to admit that while I enjoyed the experience of watching Angel’s Bone perhaps more than Dog Days –it was more engaging, a more original premise, and I was heart-stoppingly entranced during Jennifer Charles’ violent, wailing, punk rock aria as the Girl Angel– it may have had a greater shortcoming in terms of storytelling. I read the synopsis after the show, and realized I had missed a large chunk or two of plot. Additionally, in Du Yun’s artist statement, she writes that the piece has the stated goal to “understand the impulse to cross over into morally reprehensible territories.” In my mind, Mrs. X.E. was pure villain. I don’t think I ever came to understand her reprehensible morals.
So, reflecting on my nascent opera-going habit, I find that I’m mainly left with curiosity. My reactions to each production were full of paradox.
I was impressed by the vocal gymnastics and pitch-perfect notes, even though the style of music didn’t catch my emotional attention. Every one of the performers in both productions blew me away, with special mention to Kyle Bielfield in the role of the Boy Angel in Angel’s Bone.
I accepted the space made for undiluted emotion, even though I generally prefer more subtle performance (my favorite acting in Dog Days was the silent role of the dog, embodied compellingly by the performance artist John Kelly).
I loved that the music could be separate from the drama — almost becoming a character of its own. Music as narrator. It is not merely accompanying the vocal score, but embellishing upon it, providing more information. I think of the end of Dog Days, when the action onstage –two terminal and horrifying scenes playing out in tandem– is stretched over a minutes-long crescendo of droning electronic sound and violent percussion. It was grating, upsetting, and the best part of the show.
Am I an opera fan now? I have no idea. But I’m thankful to Prototype for providing me –and many others who took advantage of their affordable tickets and diverse venues– the opportunity to explore a bit. Coincidentally, I have tickets to see Tosca at NYCO on Friday, and I can’t wait to add a completely different operatic experience to these two that are still buzzing around my head days later.