n’est ce pa une opera

The world premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes it even more difficult to define his body of work. Zachary Woolfe (who reviewed it for the NYT) insists that  Quicksand is categorically “opera,” but he’s responding to the many people who insist that Ashley’s work is performance art, or theatre, or a spoken-word concert. Ashley resists categorization, but do we still need to put him in a box?

It’s the first opera staged without Ashley alive to direct its vision, although several of his core (artists who worked with him closely for many years) have a hand here: Tom Hamilton (orchestra, sound, live mix), David Moodey (light design), Steve Paxton (choreography). Quicksand is a detective-mystery novel Ashley wrote and published in 2011. The only sound in this production is his melodic voice reading the novel from beginning to end over a colorful electronic hum while two performers (Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar) move on stage.

I saw it at The Kitchen in New York City last night. About fifteen minutes into the performance, I wondered if I had made a mistake by reading the novel first, as though I had inadvertently pulled one medium out like a thread from the multi-media work. As a book that you read silently to yourself, Ashley’s attention to language falls out of the experience. Staged, hearing each word spoken lyrically in Ashley’s characteristic way, the language becomes music beautifully. And the sound was realized visually by soft colors (blue, yellow, pinkish-red) and calculated movement. The performers, sometimes dancing, sometimes acting, ducked and stretched under a patchwork sheet that billowed and pulled throughout the 3-hour show. I suspect the novel’s narrative is a mis-direction. The real story is in the sight of sound.

It’s difficult to say what this is; it is much easier so say what lines it toes: It’s a novel that’s not a novel, an opera that’s not an opera, and a dance that’s not a dance.

Weekend Music: Rusalka and Schumann

I readily admit I was a big fan of the Little Mermaid when I was young–not just the Disney film but the darker, unhappier fairytale versions too. Houston Grand Opera’s Rusalka brought the fairytale happily into my adulthood on Friday. Saturday night was a mixed bag at Jones Hall. I don’t expect I’ll hear anyone play Schumann’s violin concerto again any time soon, and I’m not sure I mind.

Read both of my reviews at Bachtrack: the opera; and the symphony.

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane

Elias Quartet

In Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928) a character attempts to use Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15, Opus 132 as a scientific proof of God’s existence. Characters huddle around a gramophone and imagine heaven itself in the elongated notes simultaneously “hanging” and “floating” in and out of time: “Long notes, a chord repeated, protracted, bright and pure, hanging, floating, effortlessly soaring on and on” the narrator tells us.

Hearing the Elias Quartet perform this last night (I previewed it at Houstonia), I finally understood why Huxley was obsessed enough with this work to use it as an analogy for God’s existence in his novel. A stunning performance.