On November 30, 2017, just a few days after the first anniversary of her death, Pauline Oliveros’ phantom opera The Nubian Word for Flowers received its premiere at Roulette in New York. Two new music greats, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Experiments in Opera, joined each other onstage, following a vodka tasting at the venue, to deliver the highly-anticipated sounds and sights to sold-out, standing-room-only crowd of Oliveros (and/or vodka) enthusiasts. Oliveros’ presence pervaded the room even if her body was not physically present within it; despite the packed house, audience members perked our ears (and bodies) forward to listen deeply, absorbing vibratory and aesthetic sentiments with our full beings rather than only our ears and minds. Her tones cascaded into phrases shaped by the words and imagery of director Ione and the sumptuous yet unassuming video design of Monica Duncan and Ross Karre. The opera, rendered with evident love and sincerity on the part of the instrumentalists and vocalists, was stunning from beginning to end, swirling us into Oliveros’s sound world like milk in coffee.
This sound world felt achingly familiar, but its narrative world did not. The Nubian Word for Flowers tells the story of a white male, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, but is decidedly anti-colonialist and intersectional in its “deep dream exploration of the Colonial Mind.” Kitchener, on a secret mission as Secretary of State for the UK, was responsible for surveying and mapping the grids that divide the land within exploited regions of the world. Ione’s libretto expresses the search for “word beyond word, beyond language” as Kitchener is swept off to the fictional Nubian Island and must reckon with phantoms both literal and metaphorical. Fully aware of the colonizing powers of language and naming, Oliveros and Ione describe their desire to sonically map these sorts of colonial exploitation through their opera: “the long and complex history of exploitation of Egyptian and Sudanese cultures by British and European colonialists is symbolized by super star of war and brilliant botanist Kitchener.” At the premiere, Ione’s powerful text and vocals shaped this story, filtering a colonialist chronicle through the materiality of her voice; the result was as “woke” an opera as possible given the circumstances of the genre.
The harrowing process and ramifications of colonization, conveyed through the duo’s dreamy and metaphorical storytelling, played out in the multimedia format described by Oliveros and Ione as “special audio/visual techniques and vivid comic panels to create shifting phantom realities.” The triad of projectors displayed images that felt carefully-done rather than contrived (as is so often the case with visuals for new music pieces, which tend to distract from rather than complement the sonic components). The seamless transitions between images and moods were matched by acrobatics on the flute by Laura Cocks, skillful guitar playing from Daniel Lippel, and crowded yet glorious ensemble of vocalists who occasionally sang from a roped-off section of Roulette’s balcony. The guitar and other sonic eccentricities, such as Ione’s voiceovers and Jacob Greenberg on Indian harmonium, lent the opera sonic diversity as well as a synecdochal illustration of the colonizing forces responsible for the appropriation of instruments and techniques within the Western classical canon.
The anti-colonialist efforts of the entire team of individuals who brought this to life are notable in a field so eager to deny its own white male supremacist history. The comments section of the New York Times right now is full of individuals defending conductor James Levine, accused of the sexual abuse of at least four teenagers and young men, because he is a “great artist.” The allegations against Levine began popping up not too long after conductor Andris Nelsons claimed that sexual harassment is not a problem in the classical music industry because “art makes people better humans.” And earlier this year, when I wrote about sexual harassment and toxic masculinity at a music festival, I was pilloried for suggesting that these were problems at all (even as my inbox was flooded with messages from women saying they had experienced these same sorts of things themselves but were too intimidated to talk about it publicly). The classical music world is just as sexist and racist as Kitchener’s colonial mind, and denying it in the name of “great artists” only reinforces these ongoing problems. Oliveros knew this, and her parting words could not be more clear: the opera’s chilling yet heartening final words were “we will survive this.” From the grave, Oliveros provided us with a night of condemnation, caution, and, ultimately, comfort.