The last time I tried to attend the NYC Opera, it was one of those summer runs where the admission is free.
It was one of those days that’s too hot at first but becomes uncomfortably chill as the sun sets behind the surprisingly tall buildings around 66th and broadway. We anticipated the crowds and thus arrived an hour early only to find not a single seat without a placeholder sweater or bag, beside a row of family members scowling at one another or an elderly couple scowling at you. To my surprise, the free opera my friend had been raving about for weeks was just a large projection of a prerecorded show, cast on a large white screen outside the main entrance of the opera house, for over 300 senior citizens of new york to gawk at in reminiscent of when their social security could accommodate a budget of live entertainment, and if this is indeed what the 21st century entailed.
We took a vote; it was in the favor of taking our picnic to central park, rather than the stairs of the opera house courtyard which too by the hour encroaching the screening was becoming unbearably crowded with early latecomers. The group of us sat in the park, each having a private monologue about the successes and failures of the trip; concealing my discomfort on the cold rocks and disappointment with my misconceptions of what a free opera would entail with occasional laughter, I silently wondered what my first opera in NYC would be.
A little over half a year later, a very gracious friend who I greatly appreciate the company of extended an invitation to the opening night of “Monodramas” [which runs March 25th – April 8th] via the hospitality of John Zorn and friends.
I pick up the program and read the three synopses for the pieces I am about to absorb. I have just enough time to finish them before the lights begin to dim; I close the program, reminding myself to look over the notes and artists later.
The first piece was by our friend John Zorn, which up until reading the program, I had assumed composed all the music for the evening. This first opera was roughly 20min long and called “La Machine de L’etre” [“The Machine of Being”] and focused on the direction of chaos via musical composition and projected drawings by Antonin Artaud in his less gracefully years from the end of his celebrated and schizophrenic life as a beautiful person. The most exciting parts where:
1. the drawings [projected into two word bubbles suspended above the actors, one of which combusted into flames as a finale – which I thought was a copout] by Artaud, because I have a childhood fascination with schizophrenia
2. The man in a red zoot suit who was suspended towards the finale [because if was the only color in the costumes and because it woke me up a little]
3. The fact that Zorn did not write any text for the piece, nor gave stage direction. He left all the visual aspects up to the interpretation of the stage director. What a guy. LET THIS BE A LESSON TO YOU.
The second piece was an old one by Arnold Schoenberg with text/libretto written in an actual language [German] by 26 year old psychology student Marie Pappenheim in the early 1900’s translated on a wide screen at the top of the stage. It was called “Erwartung” [program translation: “Waiting” // wiki translation: “Expectation”] and was the most coherent plot line of the three. It went on for about 30min displaying objective and subjective, loving and suspicious thoughts of a woman who, in a dream, is to meet her lover in the woods but discovers him dead. The drama builds, as the rose petals perpetually fall from the rafters, accumulating on the floor. The conclusion shows how she suspects herself to be the killer, or rather perpetrator of the relationship as she first approaches him still alive in the forest; an abstract flash forward within a lover’s mind.
The third piece “Neither” seemed longest, but was no longer than the second. It was intermediate in age compared to the other two pieces, being composed in 1976-77 by Morton Feldman to a libretto by Samuel Beckett. It was the most abstract but summed up concretely the subject of simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity within one persons internal dialog. The music was a repetitive nine note loop, with mildly coherent pronunciation [mostly the last line “unspeakable home” which resonated for hours after leaving the venue]. The tones changed whereas the notes stayed the same, to the effect of someone singing to you for 30minutes on a rather fast carousel ride. The lulling composition and brilliant soprano put me in a trance for some portions of the piece, but not enough to overlook the tacky reflective stage backgrounds [no doubt in an attempt to elongate the stage] or the musical theater kids they hired to play patty cake with themselves several times towards the height of the internal turmoil. However, the three tiers of suspended silver cubes lifting and falling made up for it all.
If you like tension, this is one’s for you.