I have written elsewhere about the fact that I have had very little exposure to opera, something that I am working on changing in 2020. 113 Composers Collective’s new production The Golden Ass is an experimental opera. Experimental opera is like regular opera but without beautiful singing, a discernible narrative, or accessibility. Before you jump to conclusions let me point out that I didn’t say it was bad singing, I said “discernible narrative”, and frankly inaccessible seems to be the goal. When the lights came up after a little over an hour I had no idea what I had seen or heard. I mean, obviously I know what I saw and heard, but I had no idea what any of it meant. If I had left the theater right then and headed home I think I would have gotten no further in understanding what I saw. But I stayed after for a talk back session with some of the creators and artists involved in the production. I can’t say that it brought comprehension to what I saw, but at least I moved past the feeling that there was nothing to understand. That is ultimately the goal for The Golden Ass. The creators talked about seeing it multiple times and coming to new understandings each time. A deeper understanding comes from questioning and probing for what meaning is there, and in this case most of what you find will be what you brought with you.
I’m not going to spend time on the basic story, it’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche Myth, click her to familiarize yourself with it courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_and_Psyche . But this is a retelling for a psychological point of view, it’s also being told out of any narrative sequential order. Of course reading that I tried to impose a narrative onto what we were presented with. But there isn’t one, it’s about the moods and feelings that Psyche has at times. Listening to the composer Tiffany M. Skidmore and director Joey Crane it’s clear that for them the experience is filled with purpose and meaning. The problem is there is no way for someone coming in cold to the performance could interpret anything they saw in the way Skidmore and her Librettist Patrick Gallagher see it. There is basically no comprehensible language sung there is no action other than that of dancers who play a sort of silent greek chorus. They move very very slowly around the room. The music is challenging, it’s unlike what you are used to hearing, it is not melodic, it is discordant. The singing is not singing as we traditionally think of it. Rather than singing words the performers seem to be doing impressions of a theremin. But that is impressive in it’s own way. This type of music must be the absolute hardest for a performer, it’s not like you can learn the lyrics and notes to a song, you would absolutely need to read the music and lyrics as you perform it, there is no chorus, no melody, just sounds.
Along with the singing and movement there is also a visual aspect. there are filmed images that are projected behind and above the performers. They said that provides what little narrative there is, but I don’t see it. Between the dancers who move throughout the theater, sometimes in front of the audience sometimes behind, Conductor Elizabeth McCann also doing movement, and the filmed images projected it’s hard to know where to look. This is another element that leads one to be unsure of the intentions of the the company. Where are we supposed to look? What is important? In traditional theater the job of the behind the scenes and the onstage talent is to draw our attention where they need it to tell their story. Experimental opera seems to be the antithesis of that. They don’t seem concerned with you understanding a story, they don’t seem to be concerned with where you are looking, if so they wouldn’t have things happening all over the room, in front of, to the side, and behind you simultaneously.
I know this sounds very negative, and honestly this is not for everyone. But I’m glad I checked it out. I’m describing things accurately above. I think this is an example of what Hamlet said “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. I’ve described things that in an ordinary play/musical/opera would be negatives. But this is an experimental opera, and these things are perhaps not the negatives in this form as they would be in others. If you are curious, if you like avant-garde, if you enjoy unusual music, you may find this challenging but enjoyable as well. Did I mention the two Cellist who sit on stage throughout and never play? It’s that kind of thing. The Golden Ass plays through 2/23/20, For more information and purchase tickets go to http://www.113collective.com/