From April 17 through April 22, 2014, Brooklyn’s progressive new music venue Roulette presented three very different world premieres. The unifying thread that bound these three contrasting productions together was the theme of opera, though the various forms that concept assumed made for quite a compelling collage of possibilities. Beginning on the 17th, avant-garde music legend Anthony Braxton took the helm as conductor, offering his latest project, a four act metaphysical masterpiece entitled Trillium J, which was spread over two nights and added up to about four hours of spiritually penetrating, mantric comedy, at once profound and absurd. A few days later, American Opera Projects and the American Modern Ensemble teamed up to present two, short works including The Wanton Sublime an intimate monodrama exploring the human and mythic aspects of the Virgin Mary by British composer Tarik O’Regan and a science-fiction parody called The Companion by American Modern Ensemble founder Robert Paterson.
Braxton, who is known for his adamant stance on avoiding categorization (and who, with his colleagues in the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), coined the term “creative music” in defiance of being labeled either a jazz musician or a classical composer), conjured a work very well aligned with his typical opus of deeply esoteric and philosophical exploration. As one potential savior of the future of opera, Braxton, who “…believe[s] that the medium of opera is directly relevant to cultural alignment and evolution,” composed a monumental piece that tells its storyless story through the presence of twelve character archetypes reflected by twelve instrumental soloists who pass through four autonomous one-act settings, exemplifying the composer’s own personal logic system as described in his Tri-Axium Writings.
The production itself was charming, despite widely imbalanced vocal and acting ability distributed throughout the cast. Semi-staged with simple costumes and minimal set-pieces, the work was enhanced by a strong multi-media component designed and executed by composer and video artist Chris Jonas. Jonas’ work was refreshingly high-quality in an age when the go-to enhancement to many productions are video projections and other forms of technology that are so often pedestrian and amateurish. Braxton’s piece was weird, hilarious, opaque, honest and brutally violent in its mandala-like exposition on themes of corruption and the perception of progress.
Opening in an equally philosophical vein, Tarik O’Regan’s one-woman piece, The Wanton Sublime made up the first half of American Opera Projects’s collaboration with Ear Heart Music and the American Modern Ensemble. O’Regan collaborated with poet and author Anna Rabinowitz in exploring the humanity of the Virgin Mary and the external forces that have elevated her to symbolize the ideal woman.
The strength of this work truly seemed to rest upon Rabinowitz’s swirling text, modified from her own book of poetry published in 2006 and bearing the same title. Unfortunately, the story seemed to get swallowed up by O’Regan’s score, which stuck to its own, driving agenda, albeit skillfully executed in its own right. One persistent distraction came from the questionable inclusion of a drum kit in the otherwise beautiful and effective score, which phased in and out with mundane rock patterns, and seemed to polarize, rather than unify the piece. As a result, it remained hard to keep track of the apparent drama as Mary, folding laundry and pacing in and out of the shadows, dramatically questioned her own archetype, wishing to be left alone to uncover the truth of being a woman, rather than being revered for what is considered to be womanly or ultimately feminine. Director Mallory Catlett’s minimal staging utilized stark lighting as a set-piece and proved most effective. Lone soprano Hai-Ting Chinn was flawless in both her vocal versatility and acting ability, and despite a loss of clarity in the presentation of much of the text, Chinn’s radiating presence told a story of its own that certainly aligned with Rabinowitz’s fluidic words.
Sinking deeper into this eclectic rabbit hole, these three days of opera closed with Robert Paterson’s science fiction one-act, The Companion, with words by David Cote. Apparently the second part of a triptych entitled Three Way (pun intended), which explores themes of sexuality and power, The Companion transported us to the near future, in which owning an android Companion has become a sort of status symbol amongst the elite who don’t want to deal with the messiness of a human sexual and romantic relationship. Of course, futuristic androids suffer many of the same deficiencies with which we grow frustrated today, such as constant pop-up ads (lyrically spouted in mid-sentence by Cote and Paterson’s android, Joe) and constant software updates that render the technology temporarily useless, not to mention each model being out-of-date the moment it leaves the showroom floor. Cote’s libretto was hysterical and was brought to life by a brilliant cast including Nancy Allen Lundy in the role of Maya, an independent business woman who just wanted to be loved by her android, Joe, played by tenor Brandon Snook and the android repairman, Dax, played by baritone Kyle Guglielmo. While the entire cast offered a well-balanced appeal, Snook stole the show with his magnificent instrument and apparently effortless characterization as the kind-hearted, though flawed and outdated android Companion. Paterson’s score showcased an excellent musical vocabulary and flowed beautifully under the watchful baton of ensemble conductor Tyson Deaton, who led the group through both productions with keen precision.
While the richness and sophistication of Braxton’s Trillium J showcased the composer’s hard-earned and practical experience, O’Regan and Rabinowitz’s The Wanton Sublime and Paterson and Cote’s The Companion offered up further thoughtful perspectives on the shape of things to come as opera continues to search for its place in the developing musical landscape. As long as composers and librettists continue to explore ways of expressing themselves through this medium, the strong potential for great and memorable works to continue to emerge remains high.