Wednesday, 13 April 2011


To the New York City opera for Monodramas, which is a performance of three otherwise unrelated works for soprano and orchestra:

La Machine de l’Être by contemporary New York composer John Zorn;

Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung; and

Neither, a setting of a Samuel Beckett text by Morton Feldman.

The show was directed and designed by Michael Counts, who works on “large-scale immersive installations and theatrical productions, often in unconventional spaces”.

The performance began about a quarter of an hour before the advertised starting time with the appearance of a man and a woman, both formally dressed, who stood in front of the curtain surveying the audience. They didn’t interact with one another: distancing themselves from experiencing a crystallized totality both in the social world and in the self. I’m not quite sure, but the man might have been doing the party trick of rolling back his eyes in a scary way so only the whites were visible. They were there until about twenty minutes after the advertised starting time as “patrons were being seated”; or so it was said. I suspect the audience was in fact experiencing an immersion in Erwartung by design.

John Zorn’s description of La Machine de l’Être is – “ there is no text, no plot, and no stage directions whatsoever”. The title is taken from the name a drawing by Antonin Artaud and Mr. Zorn hopes it’s stage presentation will be inspired by his works, which this one was.

As the work is only ten minutes long and as the production provided much distraction, I couldn’t form any opinion about Mr. Zorn’s music. The soprano part, as the description suggests, is wordless vocalising, and was sung by Anu Komosi from Finland. The singing was a highlight of all three performances. I imagine that each part, in it’s own way, involved some extraordinary feats of technique and memory and each of the singers was amazingly good.

When the curtain eventually rose for the first piece, the alienated couple entered the stage to find a crowd of people dressed in burkhas or the like. The couple disrobed one, to reveal Anu Komosi, and another to reveal a man in bright red suit with wires attached. Surely it would not be too long before this man was lifted into the air: and so he was.

It is a known fact that people who levitate do not have wires attached. Magritte knew this and never drew in the wires. My complaint is that stage magic is not magic if you can see the working parts. I also have a problem with the distraction caused by actors and dancers holding poses for lengthy periods of time. I can’t help wondering if the pose is painful to hold, and the diversion was compounded during Neither when the same man in a another suit was left, hanging in mid air, in a stylised pose, for what seemed like about half an hour.

The composer’s request for reference to the work of Antonin Artaud was honoured. Cut out speech bubbles appeared from the floor and as they hovered over the performers Artaud’s images were projected onto them.

Next was an Entr’acte in which to the sound of amplified forest murmurs, mainly crickets chirping, some ninja or buraku puppeteers joined the hooded ones, one of whom was disrobed to reveal Kara Shay Thomson the protagonist of Erwartung. There was a speech bubble over her head and some very attractive images of trees and leaves by video artist Jennifer Steinkamp were projected.

Erwartung was the best known work on the program, but I don’t recall having heard it before. The score is rich and interesting and the mood similar to that of Verklärte Nacht. It concerns the varying emotions of a woman who searches for her lover and then stumbles across his dead body. It may be carping to say that it is now over 100 years old. It draws on Freud’s outmoded emotional world of hysteria and alienation, which led to a dead end. The less sophisticated passions of nineteenth century opera have survived better. Since I would have preferred to hear and concentrate on the music, I may not be the best judge of the production, which was a distraction to me. It was only partly descriptive. Some symbolism, which I did not unravel, may have been involved. For example, the lover, alive and dead was duplicated. One lover must have been a contortionist from the remarkable way in which he rose from the dead.

For me the highlight of the night was the final piece on the program Morton Feldman’s Neither. I only discovered Morton Feldman’s work a couple of years ago when I heard a performance of his Rothko Chapel in Melbourne. That is a remarkable piece but Neither even more so, if only because it is longer. The music is very difficult to describe; if I said it was translucent it would convey very little, but it the best word that comes to mind. In harmony with the text by Samuel Beckett, it seems to be going nowhere, hovering somewhere in space, until close to the end when it develops a sense of menace leading to the final words “unspeakable home”.

The collaboration between Feldman and Beckett must be the most unusual in opera: assuming Neither is, in fact, an opera. Beckett simply supplied the text. At the time he wrote it, it is said that he had heard none of Feldman’s music. Although Feldman began composing before he had received the text, the work is accordingly more like the setting of a poem than a collaboration between composer and librettist. Some of the text is sung in syllables very high in the soprano’s range, so that it is not intelligable as a text at all. At times the soprano has passages of pure vocalisation as well as the sung text. I have not found any comment by Beckett on the fate of his text. As he could be very particular with stage directions in his plays, it would be interesting to know if he approved of such a free treatment of his text in the completed work.

The soprano part was beautifully sung by Cyndia Sieden.

The setting was a bright space of changing colours with ( as well as the suspended man mentioned above ) many mirrored cubes which rose and fell. This was an effective visual expression of the whole piece, which might be called an inconclusive introspection.

Monodramas: New York City Opera, Friday 8 April 2011.

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