A large – if not overflowing – crowd of youngish hipsters turned out for the Modernist trilogy at New York City Opera last night, complete with pompadour mohawks and funky clothes. The audience confirmed NYCO’s branding as the hippest hall in Lincoln Center. But as we all staggered away after the shows, nearly three hours later, I wondered how the evening of unabashedly Modernist music had met everyone’s expectations – invigorating or confounding?
Monodramas features three short operas for solo female voice: Arnold Schoenberg‘s landmark Erwartung (1909), John Zorn‘s wordless La Machine de l’Etre (premiere), which was inspired by the last drawings of the surrealist Antonin Artaud, and Morton Feldman’s eerie Neither (1977), with text from the spare poem by Beckett.
The production was a first step into opera by visual artist and stage director Michael Counts, who also runs a gaming company that delivers “arts-driven entertainment experiences.” He filled out the solo roles with an ensemble of actors and movement artists who served as stage dressing and silent players, solving the problem of how to make a one-woman opera visually compelling but also telling stories that didn’t appear to come from the scores.
Patrons were greeted by two severe-looking players in black skinny jeans and jackets who stared out at the crowd from the proscenium. When the curtain rose on La Machine, the pair began inspecting the players on the stage, who were all dressed in grey burkas, an alarming choice that didn’t apparently have anything to do with politics. The players in modern dress then gently disrobed some of the burka-wearers, revealing a man in a red suit, a lady in old-fashioned underwear, and our soprano in a grey dress. Our visual focus soon shifted to a large “thought bubble” screen, on which was projected animated versions of Artaud’s tortured drawings from his last years in an asylum. This was one of the strongest choices in the entire production. Images and music avoided concrete interpretation, and the whole moment simply was itself, beyond an individual story or character.
The staging had nothing to do with this. The underwear lady did some severe dance moves among the burka-wearing statues and eventually turned her affections to the man in the red suit, who levitated away from her. That the work is divided into three sections was not brought out by the staging, and I nearly lost track of Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who sang Zorn’s intricate part with emotion and clarity. As for the music itself, it fit my impression of the post-modern aesthetic: strongly reminiscent of many other works, a random collage of events, and nearly a self-parody. But isn’t that what it’s all about? The thought bubble burst into flames at the end. Cool.
For the transition to Erwartung, the statues came downstage in a row, like a burka-clad perp line-up. The severe-looking players took off each of their burkas (somehow a touching gesture) revealing all of them in matching white goddess gowns. The players donned a wig on our leading lady, and a video screen filled with stylized images of trees and branches while taped cricket noises drone on from the loudspeakers, our only clues that this is set in the woods. Red petals began to fall, which they did for the entire work, landing distractingly on the soprano’s head and dropping right down her dress. “Where are you?” She calls, over the stabbed body of her lover (the red-suited man), and her alter-egos scamper in a circle. This element of not seeing the visible, rejecting what we find, and wondering what our reality is heightened the dream-like elements of the other-worldly text, written by the young psychiatric student Marie Pappenheim, cousin to Bertha whom Freud named Anna O. when he was learning from her hysteria.
Whenever I hear Schoenberg I wonder why I don’t hear more of it. Written in free atonal style (no tone rows yet), Erwartung piece could only be his, full of word painting, emotion, and a kind of beauty that horrifies and intrigues. The staging at NYCO, however, didn’t expressly add to the music. The eye gravitated naturally to the singer, Kara Shay Thompson, who sang beautifully but with little character, and was the least animated player onstage. Her alter egos, meanwhile, did a little too much, acting out countless interpretations of what the character might be experiencing. I get it, alter egos, Freudian. I would have preferred a cleaner staging, with the best interpretations left to my imagination.
The evening finished out with the stage premiere of Feldman’s haunting and ethereal Neither. Here Counts’ impulse for the dramatic was at its strongest — and most out of place. Feldman creates spare and achingly slow soundscapes that stretch the range of the orchestra’s tonal palate, with the soprano intoning Beckett in a high-pitched, broken drone. An occasional nine-note theme jumps out of the texture, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
The set was transformed into a large mirrored box, with a coffin-size pit in the center where the soprano intones “unspeakable home” at the very end. The hole made made me worry for the performers’ safety, but what better way to be constantly reminded of death? Counts added dozens of suspended mirrored boxes that descended to various heights from the ceiling, and the soprano and the players occasionally transfixed themselves on one of the spinning cubes. The red-suited man was also suspended from the ceiling, like a corpse.
The movement ensemble, all of them now in the severe hipster dress of the opening pair, worked as dark foils to the glimmering mirrors, and occasionally had some rather baffling choreography, provided by Ken Roht. When the nine-note motif returned quickly, they stood and moved their hands and arms in Macarena-like gestures, unclear how they were responding to the music except for its rhythmic impulse. One of the players seemed to be the silent companion to the soprano, gazing at her intently as as she wandered around the set with arbitrary intensity. The thankless role was sung with bell-like beauty by Cyndia Sieden.
In all three productions, Counts brought tension, drama, and plot to the staging that might have enlivened the stage picture but had little to do with the music. With little to draw on, the players presented vaguely intense gestures that only succeeded in communicating a generalized artiness.
I found myself thinking of the New York Philharmonic’s Le Grand Macabre last year, whose outrageous costumes and sets by Doug Fitch and Giants are Small heightened the qualities in the music and brought the work to life. The work is albeit considerably more concrete than anything in the Monodramas, but one wonders how a staging might be if a director truly worked from the score, let the abstractions be what they are, and allowed us to meditate on them, without drawing out a story. In any case, bravo to NYCO for letting this music live, and here’s hoping the hipsters make their way back.