Since 2010, Experiments in Opera, founded by composers Aaron Siegel, Matthew Welch and Jason Cady, has presented all sorts of new works that simultaneously affirm and challenge the very idea of ‘opera.’ The genre’s core elements – story and character, music and singing – are preserved, but in each new work, these are presented with the intention of examining the purpose and dimensions of every element. Over the past several years, Experiments in Opera has commissioned more than 60 new works, collaborating with more than 300 musicians, performers and artists in a wide variety of disciplines and succeeded in achieving the basic mission of re-writing the story of opera.
In the opening presentation of this season, Experiments in Opera offered four short operas. All four used music generated by means of modular synthesizer; all were “small” in scope, featuring only one or two singers and lasting no more than twenty minutes. The small performance space of The Flea Theater created an intimate performance-and-audience environment; these four pieces were chamber-operas.
The first opera was Volver by Andrew Raffo Dewar. Based on Depression-era episodes of social and economic abuse inflicted on Mexican-Americans and documented in oral history recordings now archived at California State University at Fullerton, the opera is an effectively damning political commentary on contemporary Trumpian immigration policies by means of a nuanced and moving examination of 90-year-old socioeconomic and demographic events.
As the electronic music, played by the composer, offered a context of alternating melancholy resignation and grating anger, three recorded voices from the oral history archives – two Mexican-American workers forced to move from America to Mexico and a mid-level bureaucrat who forced their emigration – were played, revealing the historical events with terrible clarity. In silhouette in an open door on the stage, the single singer, Roland Burks, presented response to the recordings. He did not, however, sing in any traditional sense. He offered sounds. These were mysterious and compelling. Initially, they seemed kin to spooky electronic sounds; gradually, they became closer to whimpers, hushed hooting, low wailing, nature’s mourning; by the work’s conclusion, they were an unknown language, coherent if non-human, that conveyed outrage and confusion, an urgent need to bear witness of destruction and violation.
The oral history words were clear; the facts conveyed, concrete. The synthesizer-music and Burks’ singing were oracular, a universal expression of rebuke against a particular situation of human abuse.
The second opera, Candy Corn by Jason Cady, featured singers Alize Rozsnyai and Calder Craig accompanied by the composer, playing the modular synthesizer. A married couple grapple with the suicide death someone they dearly loved. Through extended conversations across several clever scene changes of breakfast-table card games, beach sun-bathing and Halloween party preparations, they travel back in time to the terrible reality of their friend’s death. The synthesizer provides bassline music and chords as well as scene-sounds, such as sea-shore waves; in addition, the singers’ spoken and sung conversations are processed into echoed or reverbed and percussive sounds.
The words of the couple’s conversation reflect marital paradoxes: two people know each other inside out, though an internal core within each remains mysterious to the other. The lyrics, in extended passages, are witty and immediately recognizable as ‘just like real life.’ With no indication of any librettist, the lyrics are presumably, written by the composer. The soul-deep puzzlement in the fact of suicide is keen. Quotidian ordinariness of a card game, beach leisure and fun costumes are contrasted with the terrible mystery of a desired death. Rozsnyai and Craig were a compelling couple, singing and acting with conviction and daring.
The third opera was Kamala Sankaram’s The Wife; Sankaram sang and Red Wierenga played both accordion and modular synthesizer. In this tour-de-force piece, Sankaram tells and becomes a folk-tale of blood-moon transformations from human to wolf monster. What begins as something like a traditional aria – a woman is telling a story – evolves gradually into an atmospheric evocation of primordial and unknowable forces of destruction; Sankaram herself begins as a ‘regular’ singer and becomes an unleashed creature of attacking, limitless wild strength. The music draws on folk motifs of middle European songs while taking advantage of the synthesizer’s ability to sound both organic and mechanical, familiar and strange, human and other worldly.
The final opera, Joan La Barbara’s Virginia and the Time Machine presented the internal responses of memory-exploration to current criticism of a woman, Virginia W. The identified time of the opera is pre-World War II England; ‘Virginia W.’ seems to be Virginia Woolf, though that fact is not made explicit. As Virginia W. deals with contempt for her ideas, she travels back in time to an idyllic sea-side childhood with the comforts of a loving mother and simultaneously relives jarring dislocations and disturbances of her adult life.
Virginia and the Time Machine is, in some senses, a traditional one-woman show, a single main figure presentation of the essence of a particular character. In fact, this work is more complex than that. La Barbara sings, speaks, acts and dances; she interacts with others, presented by singer Julia Meadows; she successfully manages to inhabit a tangible present and a remembered past in a single moment. The synthesizer, played by Miguel Fraconi and cello, played by Bryan Hayslett create music that locates the piece in both an identifiable external time and place and the shape-shifting internal landscape of memory, speculation, wistfulness and hope now discarded.
The libretto written by Monique Truong is dense; the language is eloquent and lyrical. La Barbara’s flexible, often elegant voice conveyed her loving connection to both music and words.
Though vastly different from each other, all four operas dealt either directly or indirectly with time, with the ways in which the past — personal, historical, mythic — influences the present. Each work, though short, provided a compelling immersion in a very particular and individual moment. A socioeconomic injustice, a suicide, a folk tale and a collection of idylls dashed to bits have all generated musical examinations of the past’s shaping of the present; the most basic and timeless musical instrument, the human voice, combined with the technological marvel of modern synthesizers offers a particularly effective means of considering the relationship of past and present.
The experimenting contained in these four works is rich and daring. Supported by the overall sound design of Nathaniel Butler and the stage management of Anna Aschliman, these short operas are fine, successful affirmations of the overall mission and goals of Experiment in Opera.
Experiments in Opera: Modularias (November 2, 2018)
The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 95 minutes, with three-minute pauses between each work
For more information: http://www.experimentsinopera.com