Although the evening consisted of a thirty-minute operatic reading and an eighty-minute multimedia opera, it was in fact an immersion in several interconnected and overlapping sets of ideas: colonialism and resistance; dream and memory, fantasy and phantasmagoria; chaos and control; fear and inspiration. The program was almost too much: Rainbird, an interesting work of both narrative and meditative value, was well-performed by Gelsey Bell, Justin Hicks and Jade Hicks (singers) with Andie Springer/violin, Matt Evans/percussion and composer Aaron Siegel/keyboards. But it deserves a fuller performance. Its status as something like warm-up act for the Oliveros-IONE opera seemed almost unfair.
The Nubian Word for Flowers, in two acts, tells the story – the historical, imagined, moral and spiritual stories – of Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener, Queen Victoria’s Secretary of State for War. On a secret mission to Russia, Kitchener finds himself shipwrecked on a Nubian island and pitched into a surreal experience of personal exploration and spiritual haunting: he must come to terms with memories of childhood and women, courtships and friendships. Plants and flowers take on significance as symbols and interpretive guides; a Nubian boatman functions as seer and priest, psychological surgeon and moral accountant. Kitchener encounters memories and ghosts that challenge both the emotional and the political decisions of his life. The challenges of these encounters require Kitchener to judge himself even as the audience never really knows what Kitchener finally believes; in the process, the audience, too, must challenge and judge itself for its assumptions about both personal and geopolitical histories.
Bass baritone Michael Wenandt as Kitchener and tenor Peter Tantsits as Colonel Oswald, who finds Kitchener and connects him to his British world, were first-rate: they both sang compellingly and acted effectively, navigating the opera’s complex half-fact, half-fantasy geography. Sopranos Alice Teyssier and Lisa E. Harris were elegant in various roles as women in Kitchener’s life. Challenging and illuminating Kitchener’s British self was baritone and oud player Zizo as the Nubian Boatman, a stunning Nubian folk and popular singer who made the mythic aphorisms of his arias’ lyrics sacred.
The set for the opera was itself a living, organic phenomenon; it functioned as an additional character in the opera. IONE sat near the moveable stage-flats; her back was to the audience, yet she was one of us. Hovering above the stage set were great canvas triangles – mildly billowed faluka sails – on which IONE projected Victorian and Edwardian era images of the British Empire in all its beauty and its ugliness. Priestess and manager, oracle and medium, IONE was at once a participant in the visual commentaries on Kitchener’s internal dramas and their director.
Oliveros’ music is exhilarating: it is daring, sometimes succeeding in portraying the world’s interconnected glories and cruelties, and sometimes failing. Extended passages of both individual and duet singing were expressive and elegant. The singers themselves, passionately committed to the score, made the difficult simultaneous fact-and-fantasy “plot” plausible.
Act Two, during which Kitchener must confront the murderously violent political legacies of colonialism, might have benefitted from tightening and editing. In a future production, this might happen. At that time, the residual feel of workshop experiment that weakened some aspects of this performance will no doubt be eliminated.
But by and large, this opera, together with the astonishing creative collaboration of artists from many fields whose work made this production possible, is remarkable.
The audience applause was nearly rapturous. But the thrill of the moment was not just of an essentially successful premiere: it was the deep happiness of a joyful and inspiring memorial. As IONE faced the clapping, cheering and, here and there, weeping audience, she raised her hands high to the heavens, calling out, ‘Pauline! Pauline!’ It was a sacerdotal invocation: Go forth and serve!
This performance of The Nubian Word for Flowers functioned in some senses as a sacred service in memory of Pauline Oliveros. Happily, the strength and significance of the opera will endure beyond the present twin emotions of grief and celebration.
The Nubian Word for Flowers/Rainbird (November 30, 2017)
Experiments in Opera in partnership with ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) and Ministry of MaAt
Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn
Running time: two hours including one intermission