Here’s a story I hope is true. Years ago, Laurie Anderson contacted Thomas Pynchon via snail mail to ask if she could turn his comic epic Gravity’s Rainbow into an opera. According to Anderson, his response was brief: “You can do it, but you can only use a banjo.”
The performance artist took this as a polite way of saying, “No.” But perhaps she wasn’t surprised. Pynchon is typically hesitant to allow adaptations of his works, and with good reason. Even among the few visionaries left, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film director or opera composer who aligns well with his mystical, slapstick, intellectual point of view. Finding a serious artist with a sense of humor, and the ability to work it into her work, is hard enough.
But, even if you could find a living composer to drink the Pynchon juice, there is no way you could pull off a full production of Gravity’s Rainbow opera without the contribution of the late Cathy Berberian, whose vocal technique was second only to her musical wanderlust. I first discovered her recordings on the avant-garde site Ubuweb, a treasure trove of strange and wonderful art pieces. You can listen to and download tracks from her album Nel Labrinto Dela Voce, a collection of recordings from all throughout her career, from the 60s through the 80s, including a fantastic Villa-Lobos’s street scene “Desejo” and, my personal favorite, a take on Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” that’s as sexy and dramatic as anything Lotte Lenya could’ve done. You might just obey her when you hear her demand to “Take that pipe out of your mouth!”
Berberian came from an opera-loving family from Massachusetts, and later New York City. The first epiphany in her career came during a study in Milan when she realized, after training for a decade as an opera soprano, she could find more range and vocal texture by switching to mezzo. This new voice would allow her to specialize in chamber music, giving due attention to avant-garde vocal works by artists such as John Cage and Luciano Berio (whom Berberian married in 1950).
Berberian would also occasionally compose her own music. One of her pieces in particular, Stripsody, is still performed and recorded, but, like a cover of a Beatles song, it’s always hard not to hear the original version. Stripsody is sung a cappella from a text made up of words found within various Sunday comic strips. And it’s vocally demanding: any singer wishing to tackle Stripsody needs to be able to be able to instantly shift from a resounding “Boing!” to a convincing Charlie Brown impression.
Lastly, for a taste of class, I would recommend listening to Recital I for Cathy. Try to get all the way through without stopping. Berio composed this post-modernist opera for her (with contributions by Cathy) weaving original compositions together with selections from her repertoire. It’s an anxious monologue given by a person whose craziest moments lead her to fits of operatic singing. It would have been a thrilling theatrical experience, I believe, hearing her sing Monteverdi alongside accusations that the audience is, “acting as if no one were alone, all as if you all had the leading role!” Perhaps this is what every opera diva is thinking, but Berberian had the cojones to perform it.
Opera today offers little opportunity for talented performers to engage with new work, and it isn’t surprising we don’t see more Berberians out there. Her joie de vivre would be hard to replicate. Last weekend in Chicago, Renée Fleming charmed audiences with an alternate, comic persona in The Second City’s Guide to Opera, a revue sponsored and hosted by the Lyric Opera. Perhaps the first ever opera-themed sketch comedy show, Guide sold out quickly and a remount has already been planned for the summer, giving audiences a chance to see a great opera diva take a prat fall for laughs. It’s nice to see that kind of gusto, but it doesn’t compare with the prat falls that Cathy Berberian took moment to moment, even during the most serious of performances. Renée Fleming calls this side of her personality “my own secret comedian.” Cathy, God rest her soul, never kept anything secret.
Sam Zelitch is a writer and a performer out of Chicago, Ill. Follow him on Twitter: @smellitch.