It's a Biblical Night for a Hun Dance: The Opera Cabal
Yesterday was actually the kind of fall day in Chicago that I love. The sky was full of high-piled clouds that looked like they'd been piped from a confectioner's bag. The wind whipped down the streets in the loop, ensuring that the Fury!Hair would live up to its name. Between the gale-force winds and the unseasonable heat, it was clear a storm was coming eventually. Things really did get Biblical starting about 4 PM. Rain and hail, with the help of the aforementioned wind, formed their own funky horizon, end-of-the-world horizon.
Given that I couldn't make the cabal any other day, I was nervous that the storm would end up ruining my chance. Truth be told, driving was half an hour in interesting times as the rain kicked up again resulting in visibility that was intermittent at best. Adding to the excitement was the fact that I, a life-long south sider, could not for the life of me picture where the Zhou B. Art Center might be. Despite nature's objections, I found both it and parking in timely fashion.
I went in and proceeded to deeply confuse Nicholas DeMaison, the Cabal's Music Director and the composer of the opera, by informing him that he and Majel had left tickets for me. Now, mind you, I was not 100% certain that the guy sitting behind the table was Nick (I had only a brief description from Majel), and my m@d s0c1al 5k1llz are such that I referred to him in the third person. This no doubt was a challenge to his dude, WTF? sensors, but not to his graciousness, as he simply sent me along my way to get a program.
It was still about 10 minutes until show time and because I'm going for my "confuse people" merit badge, I asked the woman who'd given me my program if drinks were allowed in the theater. Mission accomplished! She knew no more than I did, but said I certainly had time before the show started. I repaired to the Cafe forthwith and obtained a glass of cabernet. There was nowhere to sit, a testament to the commitment of the audience on such a Biblical night, so I leaned like a Deadwood extra and began devouring the program.
Although Ursularia represents my third virgin-based theater outing of the year (that merit badge, ladies and gentlemen, is mine and no mistake!) my Ursula lore was a bit rusty. No worries, though, because the program provided a back ground that begins:
The legend of St. Ursula (b. 400 A.D.-ish) with its countless variants and increasingly fabulous developments, would fit a program book of dissertation length.
And with that "-ish," I knew that these people are of my people. If I'd had any doubts, they would have been assuaged by the careful transcription of the 10-line inscription in Latin on the Church of St. Ursula in Cologne followed by "We wish we knew Latin."
Just as my internal chuckles were about to turn to eternal guffaws that would surely send my wine up my nose and my fellow patrons screaming into the rain-soaked streets, Nick came in and announced that the show was about to start. We began the evening in the east-facing part of the gallery in front of the set up for the "Uncaged Toy Piano Road Show". I had been instructed to take a seat anywhere that I saw a beer mat. This happened to be the front row, and I happened to be the only one going for these seats. I took the seat farthest to house left.
There were three separate set ups. At center, there was a toy grand piano with a pile or box of supplies behind it. Downstage right was a much smaller toy piano with a small keyboard underneath. Both were set up on milk crates covered with a cloth alongside an iBook G4, the screen of which was covered with a sheet of paper. Upstage left was a third upright (I think) toy piano set upstage of a small oriental carpet that had three stainless steel mixing bowls on it.
Phyllis began with a piece composed for her. It was not East Broadway by Julia Wolfe, which was the piece listed on the program, but unfortunately I missed both the title and composer when she mentioned them. From where I was sitting, however, I had the advantage of being able to see both her hands and the sheet music with its vast swathes of 16th (and possibly 32nd notes, though I wouldn't swear to it). I'm not sure I'll be snapping up CDs of toy piano concertos any time soon, but Chen's skill was amazing to watch, and the music is world's more aurally appealing and positively mesmerizing than I'd have dreamed it could be.
Her second piece, "The Memoirist," however, stole the show entirely. It was a three-part multimedia extravaganza that made use of all three set ups. In part 1, she set an egg in a shot glass on top of the grand and set a music box next to that. Downstage of the piano she set a small stuffed sofa/armchair upholstered in red plush with gold stars and a sat a stuffed bunny up in the chair. She then started the music box and challenged its tune with her own on the piano. Part way through this, she cracked the egg into a bowl, turned on the electric fry pan (have I omitted the electric fry pan thus far? My inner stage manager is repressing as nonapproved, un-glow-taped electronic devices make her nervous), and sprayed it down with Pam. She gave another wind to the music box and as it played down, she whisked up the egg and fried it in the pan before returning to accompanying the music box, this time in much more lackadaisical, cooperative fashion.
In part 2, she moved to the stage right set up, and a video was projected on the back wall of the space. The video, by multimedia artist and co-composer Rob Dietz, is pretty much indescribable. Fortunately for you,I can spare you my feeble attempts, because you can watch Phyllis performing the whole piece here, and the video is quite clearly visible.
I'm not sure why it was at this point, when I was at the height of my investment in and enjoyment of the performance, that I became aware for the first time that everyone in the gallery outside the performance space was being incredibly, horribly LOUD. As I finally registered this consciously, I realized that the noise had been going on for quite some time, but I'd failed to really notice, so caught up in rockstar toy piano as I was. I think the same can be said for the rest of the audience as we were all punctuating the score with bursts of laughter at the bunny.
In part 3, Phyllis moved to the last set up. This time video was projected on to a white pillow suspended from the ceiling over the piano. Chen played the bowls with a mallet in her left hand throughout this part, reserving her right for the piano. Particularly captivating for one as uncoordinated as yours truly. And the sound she got out of the bowls was just beautiful.
The second part of the first night of the cabal featured improvisational jazz by Asylum. It was Brennan Connors on Sax, brass clarinet, and flute, and Dan Siakel on drums. They also had lured in Todd Hill to play upright bass. Everything I know about jazz, especially improvised jazz, I learned from Howard Moon, so it behooves me not to pontificate too much, other than to say it was fascinating to watch, pleasant to listen to, and it made me increasingly irritated about the noise outside.
There was about a 10-minute break before the opera. I was wandering in the gallery store and trying to avoid the loud, strange people associated with the Chicago Fire. As a result, by the time I got back into the theater, most of the seats, again save the front row, were taken. So the front row it was.
Ursularia was set up on the north side of the gallery. The orchestra (dal niente) was set up at house left and comprised a complicated arrangement of percussive things, flute, baritone sax and clarinet, trombone, violin, and cello (it's possible I'm missing an instrument between trombone and violin there, but a pillar was obstructing my view). Behind the strings there was a canvas suspended from the pipes that served as the stage right wings. At stage left, there was a screen high up (a bit too high from my perspective in the front row), and another, narrower sheet or canvas behind that for wings on stage left. Upstage (bearing in mind that there is no stage) was a canvas pooled on the ground and a wooden chest in front of that.
Ursularia was apparently presented first as a dramatic reading and then as a chamber opera at the first Opera Cabal in April of this year. Anyone who makes it even part way through my theater/opera reviews knows that I loves me some supporting text. Ursularia does not disappoint on this front.
In addition to the giggalicious synopsis cited above, Majel Connery's director's notes offer wry and interesting reflections on the contradictions between the comedy gold of St. Ursula's doomed mission (seriously, I'm not sure why Wagner didn't leap on something that chock full o' doom—perhaps he was turned off by the anti-Hun slant?) and her cult, which maintained such legs for 1,500 years that the Pope had to go to the trouble of having her stricken from official Catholic record.
The composer's notes from DeMaison on the process of writing the opera are intriguing in the extreme. As he was in San Diego, he sent a synopsis to co-writer Jonathan Eliot in Chicago. Eliot began writing dramatic scenes as DeMaison set to work on the libretto and the music. With minimal discussion between them as the opera developed, the results are awesomely off the wall.
Depending on how one counts, there are either 4 characters in the opera or two. The prologue opens with two narrators in a writers' meeting gone more horribly wrong than usual. Narrator 1 will play and/or reveal himself to be both God and Julian, the Prince of Huns whom Ursula might or might marry to save or not save herself from martyrdom. Narrator 2 will play Santiago Rocinante, the Pope of Rome or possibly not. From minute one, both have a very definite idea that Ursula is destined for . . . bigness.
Beyond that, their disagreement is rather vehement and their power to dictate the story is diabolically balanced. Although God has assembled a lovely set for Brittany, his earthy incarnation insists that Ursula's journey will begin in North Dakota. A smudge on the pages of Narrator 1's script transports the massacre of Ursula and her 11,000 (plus 11!) virgins from Cologne to Centralia, PA, and the fateful ark becomes a train.
This enmity paired with equality is bad news for both Ursula (Majel herself; who both sings and speaks) and her immortal soul (Amanda DeBoer; who sings only), both of whom are distinctly without authority to tell the story. Ursula's strategies for resistance become more complex as both she and her immortal soul gain sight, speech, and song. They do their best to challenge the details, uncover the absurdity, question this destiny, and shame the authors of her fate. But when the details are fixed among the menfolk, she is left with nothing to do but to pack, to prepare, to insist that they get on with it. Power waxing must ultimately wane, speech and song devolve into strings of isolated, impotent sound, the three-dimesional woman is reduced to an icon on canvas. Ursula is ultimately hemmed in by the all-too-predictable concerns of the narrators.
To oversimplify, it's the oldest story there is: Narrator 2/the Pope wants her for her body, Narrator 1/God is so preoccupied with her soul that the flesh wrapper is something of an inconvenience. Rocinante makes an appeal to spare Ursula so that she can do good in the world. As appealing as this may be to the pragmatist who finds salvation in works, it comes with a generous side of lechery and prurient interest on the Pope's part. And when Ursula's immortal soul rummages through the too-too solid chest of Ursula's material goods, she continually pulls up fists full of the accoutrements of motherhood—booties, bottles, and so on. A good and noble destiny, perhaps, but not exactly an embiggening one.
On the transcendent hand, God is engrossed in choosing the perfect gross of Huns so that Ursula's can be slaughtered by nothing but the prettiest, freshest, most clap-free barbarians possible. His attention to detail is admirable, but he's woefully short on time to discuss what Ursula's (metaphorical!) massacre could mean or how she has any right to ask anyone to follow her on such vaguely defined grounds.
But everything is thematically and practically more complicated than the simple Pope/God, Ursula/Immortal Soul, Speech/Music, Writer/Player dichotomies I've set up here. In general, the body, the mind, and all that is physical manifest in speech, whereas spiritual matters rain down in music, whether sung or performed solely by the orchestra. But even that line between pit and stage is blurred (well, literally, because there is neither pit nor stage) as the players' voices and actions become instruments and voices in the conversation. It's a complex and fascinating piece of work from start to finish.
Majel Connery says all of this better and more succinctly in her director's notes than I ever could:
Ursula must navigate both: an earthly (spoken) world built around absurd premises and arbitrary rules and, on the other hand, a mystical but equally idiosyncratic and delusional (musical) world of her own. The spoken scenes, however outlandish and improvised (much like history!), still contain moments of religious earnestness; likewise, the operatic scenes both convey the gravity of Ursula's attempts to come to terms with her doomed mission, and the naïve, harebrained ways she (and her alter-ego, the Immortal Soul) go about doing it.
And Nick DeMaison elaborates:
The tension created as a result of this working method becomes an essential part of the production: Ursula and her Soul are nearly non-entities in the dramatic, external world of the actors, and they in turn are nearly non-entities in the internal, musical world of Ursula. There is no reconciliation (of this structural tension, ro of the worlds of the character), just the inevitable series of events that unfolds as the result of two worlds colliding.
I hung around after the opera ended to introduce myself to Majel and thank her for inviting me. She mentioned that she'd been a somewhat unwilling director and would have rather focused on her role as Ursula. Even without the usual challenges of directing on what she described as "less than a shoestring budget," I think I would have fled town if I'd been handed Ursularia to direct, let alone if I had to direct it in the extremely short period of time Majel implied they had to get this off the ground.
In the final scenes of part 2, which are entitled "Wherein Ursula's Immortal Soul Attempts to Exercise her Power of Speech" and "Wherein Ursula and Her Immortal Soul Lose the Power of Speech and Their Luminescence," the Immortal Soul tries mightily to protest the massacre, the senseless loss of the individual life, and the ugliness of it all. This plays out as an extended piece that is mostly sung, but studded with broken, isolated phonemes. As I sat in the front row, bombarded by Amanda DeBoer's voice and anguished expression, my throat felt as if it was closing, my face flushed, and I wanted to squirm and stretch and race myself out of a feeling of extreme discomfort and claustrophobia. It was very much akin to the feeling I had for every one of the 544 pages of Kazuo Ishiguro's anxiety dream in novel form, The Unconsoled.
On the flip side of this unrelenting, anguishing tragedy was the comedy of the spoken elements. It's black, it's broad, it's absurd, and it's brilliantly deployed. In the program, Kevin McKillip is credited as Narrator 1 and Jonathan Eliot as Narrator 2; however, Eliot actually played Narrator 1 and Gregory Anderson played Narrator 2. The chemistry between these two was incredible. I have no doubt that losing an actor close enough to opening that his name still appears in the program must have been yet another thorn in the directorial side, but you would never have known it from the performance.
In keeping with the theme of the night, the musical performance was as interesting to look at as to listen to. (I note with a pained chuckle that as interesting as the opera might have been to look at as to listen to, at least two of the performers couldn't do the latter, thanks to the sightlines interrupted by the support columns.) There was hushed, but flurried activity among the percussion equipment. There was foot stomping and paper tearing, and the susurration of conversation en masse, and every second of the performance seemed to be conducted by Michael McBride, whether there was music or not.
It was a thrilling, challenging, amusing evening out, and I'm so grateful to Majel and Nick for inviting me. I'm also heartbroken on their behalf. I've just learned that, thanks to some conflict between the city and the Zhou B. Gallery, the cabal was kicked out of its space as of tonight (Saturday, October 20th). They did find a place in Hyde Park for this evening, but the Sunday show is canceled altogether. I'm more regretful than ever that it took me so long to write this up, given that the hour is closing in on its premature last performance.