Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation
I usually don't write reviews. I'm on a different time line, but we had such an amazing day (Thursday 18 August 2011), and this performance was so utterly contrary that I have to address it specifically.
We spend all our money on rent and food. We save for art (music, literature, theatre) when we feel we can't live with ourselves if we miss a particular performance. This year the one performance we thought we could not live without was Gertrude's Four Saints in Three Acts.
During this summer of Stein my one constant obsession has been the lives of artists—especially as they relate to our ability to make a living. In a recent LA Review of Books article, FutureTense, Tom Lutz concludes with a discussion of the price of books in France, and an American complaint that they are too high.
"Yes," said the Frenchman. "We have this silly theory in France that our authors should be able to eat."
Lutz adds: "We don't know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food."
Earlier this week I made a tally of my rejections: A Woman's Body Was Found There (45), California Wasn't Good For Us (3), Urban Nizhóní (2) and The Portugal Story (7). Nearly all of my rejections spin around the axis of marketability. There are a few living writers I feel kin to: Lahiri, Silko, and Kundera. When I need refuge (nearly every night) I turn to Gertrude, Beckett, and Kafka. Their world, their language, their attention to what lingers nearby, awaiting an utterance, sometimes silence, keeps me afloat when life flows like water into the mouth a drowning man (Kafka).
Virgil Thomson: "Please do not try to construe the words of this opera literally or to seek in it any abstruse symbolism. If, by means of the poet's liberties with logic and the composer's constant use of the simplest elements in our musical vernacular, something is here evoked of the childlike gaiety and mystical strength of lives devoted in common to a non-materialistic end, the authors will consider their message to have been communicated."
We'd been preparing for the play for months. Ms. Niki Lee made a new dress and I rested enough to bear life after sundown. Early that day a check arrived from IAIA: Ms. Niki Lee sold Bringing In The Dawn, her first sale in just over a year. We remembered our friend America saying "just when you can't make the rent a check arrives in the mail from IAIA." Bringing In The Dawn won't pay our rent, it barely covered the price of the tickets for the play, but we were happy nonetheless. Sometimes even the smallest thing keeps you going.
Ms. Niki Lee had read the Examiner insert written by Robyn Wise, and she was a little nervous. In my usual fashion I hadn't read past: "Thomson chose for his subject the life of the artist, and Stein embroidered the idea with religious themes, insisting that the artist's absolute commitment to art is comparable to saint-hood." The rest: "the production assembles formidable collaborators from both coasts, including composer Luciano Chessa, contemporary chamber opera group Ensemble Parallele and New York's much-in-demand video/performance artist Kalup Linzy, perhaps best known for sendups of soap opera culture."
We arrived just as they were opening the house. We sat and started to read the program. What we read was not reassuring: "I have added a more structured narrative, interconnecting several dark several dark comedic vignettes that explore some of society's irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice."
Did director and production designer Brian Staufenbiel not trust Thomson's music or Gertrude's language? Did he actually think, "I need a hook for this?" Or did he just want to write his own opera?
The curtain came up and two rows of black hooded figures walked on stage singing in parsel tongue, looking like rejects from a middle school production of Faustus.
This was A Heavenly Act, to go before the saints, commissioned by SFMOMA and Ensemble Parallelle.
Ms. Niki Lee tipped her head to me and said, "Who goes to the theatre to watch TV?" I'll refrain from attacking Mr. Linzy, who looked like a P-Funk devotee, whisper singing like Janet when the rest of the cast sung sans electric. I kept waiting for him to do something, his stage presence an annoyance, and certainly less compelling (even in disgust) than the white plastic mannequin clothed in a lace dress that took center stage in "Heaven-as-it-actually-is." Filling a theatre is decidedly different than You-Tube.
I've commented at length about the power of Thompson's original cast being all black, when black bodies were largely objectified for nonblack audience needs and fetishized epistemology, but that was then and this is now, and with all the silver paint covering the rest of production and cast faces, why did they use Mr. Linzy's body for the promotional poster—only.
Gertrude herself said, you don't have to understand it you have to enjoy it: I hated it.
As Kalup himself says: I Cried All Tears I Could Cry
I tried not to flood myself with questions: they sent to New York for this guy, they could have gone down to Esta Noche on any night of the week and found someone better, what about Vixon Noir she needs work, she's a dancer, she can sing, she commands the stage, she's hot and she lives in San Francisco.
At this point the woman next to Ms. Niki Lee lifted her right cheek about 6 inches off the seat and let one go. Which Ms. Niki Lee thought might be better than the foul smell of fabric softener she had been releasing, and which revealed, not her opinion of the opera "installation," but her own manner of "bringsy upsy."
I was hoping this mess would contain itself to the new commission.
Curtain. Four Saints in Three Acts.
Ms. Niki Lee said, "cotton candy has more substance."
Forgoing a blow by blow I will say they forced this work to conform to their own limitations.
"Novelistic thinking is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, fanciful; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters' lives; these lives feed it and justify it." (Kundera in The Curtain)
"I have added a more structured narrative, interconnecting several dark several dark comedic vignettes that explore some of society's irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice." (Four Saints program notes)
These were four Saints. Gertrude wasn't being allegorical. She revered these holy people and this landscape (Spain). This production was completely earthbound, without the land, a central character of the original production of 1934.
Ms. Niki Lee said, "These people think they are better than the gods."
"Unlike the original, this new production has a few dark angels. The aim: to imagine divine intervention working in reverse, and to ask if our earthly acts might transform the very landscape of heaven itself." (Four Saints program notes)
The significance of this statement hit me full on after I watched them gut the opera (literally on stage, and figuratively in practice). Not only did this production remove the beauty and exaltation from the music and the book, but they removed it from the lives of the Saints as well. There is no possibility of divinity in this production. The same divinity Saints reach toward and artists pursue, knowing that the most essential aspect of creation is to allow the work to be larger than yourself and your limitations. Not only did this production not trust Thomson or Stein, with their belief that it needed an amendment (a narrative and darkness), but they also believed that heaven (a concept of a divine, by definition above human frailty, wretchedness, above us, the waˆceh) can be, and in some way, needs transformation itself. The desire of a certain peoples to transform the landscape by our earthly actions is tragically clear to us, the indigenous; we see it in the dams and the current struggle at the Peaks.
It's easy to project your own limitations on work that is "experimental." I experience this with my own work, all the time.
"Every author of some value transgresses against 'good style,' and in that transgression lies the originality (and hence the raison d'être) of his art." (Kundera in Testaments Betrayed)
There are so few spaces for these transgressions today. They are getting stopped at the gates (MFA, Tenure Track Faculty, much-in-demand celebrities) and with bottom line thinking. I expected more, especially from the YBCA. Gate keeping is the very reason I've begun this series, the very issue I raise in all my work—the inability of people to make a living with a creative life. The professionalization of creation--the service of art for further consumption, replication and regurgitation keeps all of us in the audience at the feet of the sanctioned (funded and much-in-demand), even if they claim a different status.
And this installation is not even good. I've seen every image (scene, set, face make up, color scheme) before—nothing surprised me or moved me to reconsider. The entire visual and imaginative arena was cliché. They were trifling, each one. Aside from the necromantic narrative, and their ridicule of Gertrude's linguistic vision, the cast (aside from the marvelously voiced and very poorly dressed Eugene Brancoveanu, Heidi Moss, Jonathan Smucker, John Bischoff and a solid debut by Maya Kherani) looked like they had only began practicing a week ago, their costumes could have been (if they weren't) purchased up the street at Ross, and the choreography was lame and flaccid.
Still, the most destructive aspect of this production is what it had to say (in practice and theme) about the lives of artists today.