Modest Stabs at Re-imagining Opera at UC San Diego

Is there an artistic medium more easily satirized than grand opera? Its outrageous plots are legion, and its conventions strike the uninitiated as unnatural. For example, the performers’ most banal conversation is typically communicated in a lyrical singsong ostentatiously called recitative.

Opera thrives on acute suspension of disbelief, e.g. that the large, middle-aged soprano is really a delicate 15-year-old geisha, or the buxom mezzo-soprano is supposed to be a randy 18-year-old guy. Many important opera characters momentarily postpone their looming demise with a grand farewell aria, such as the royal protagonist who is lethally shot at close range onstage, but immediately launches into his most difficult aria of the entire score. Opera and its risible conventions are ripe for various kinds of humor and satire.

Kyle Adam Blair, Hillary Jean Young, Jonathan Nussman, and Ashley Cutright (from left) [photo (c) Farshid Bazmandegan]

Kyle Adam Blair, Hillary Jean Young, Jonathan Nussman, and Ashley Cutright (from left) [photo (c) Farshid Bazmandegan]

But taking down opera on its own terms—creating opera that cleverly and musically puts down the medium—is no simple affair. This proposition was amply demonstrated Friday (October 7) by The Voice Machine, a collaborative performance of three new short operas at UC San Diego’s Experimental Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Music Center. The Voice Machine approach might be described as the shotgun marriage of Dada opera with the extended “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Caroline Louise Miller’s How to Survive a 100-Hour Workweek opened with three singers seated at their desks reciting in largely unison declamation psychological advice selected from the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s pseudo-theological 1952 best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking. Accompanied by an electronic sound collage, vocalists Hillary Jean Young, Ashley Cutright and Jonathan Nussman provided an engagingly dramatic interpretation of a purposely undramatic text. When the singers left their desks, they came together center stage to sing a trio devoted to the subject of choking. This proved to be the evening’s first hint that the creators of The Voice Machine view continuity as a vice rather than a virtue.

More clearly an update of the 1920s Dada aesthetic, Constantin Basica’s Knot an Opera! cleverly juxtaposed video clips onto real time performance. His most successful conceit had four singers elaborating and extrapolating on a 1950s instructional film about dinner party etiquette. The three singers seated around the center stage dinner table with attending uniformed maid mimicked a scene in the hazy black and white instructional film projected directly above their heads.

In a delicious Dada plot turn, Basica had the maid, soprano Hillary Jean Young, request from the party hostess, soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest, a letter of recommendation for the potato dish she had prepared and just served to the dinner guests. Wiest launched into an elaborate, quasi-coloratura aria in praise of the potato (both cooked and au naturel) that packed the punch of Leonard Bernstein’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay!” in his comic opera Candide. Accompanied on a digital keyboard by her piano playing teen-age son, Kyle Adam Blair, Wiest displayed a bright, dazzling vocal technique. Blair deftly tamed an outlandish accompaniment that should have distracted from the soprano, but proved uncannily supportive, paralleling musically the poetic hyperbole of the potato aria.

This vignette called to mind A Hand of Bridge, Samuel Barber’s rarely encountered chamber opera, but it is not likely the Basica was using Barber as a model. Other segments of Knot an Opera! included a soprano vocalise, opera singing parodied in an actual Lite Beer commercial, a musical game of charades, and a cat video. As a Romanian composer currently working in California, Basica certainly comes by his Dada roots honestly. One of the leading Dada figures, poet and playwright Tristan Tzara, was a Romanian who left his native soil to work in Paris–arguably the California of the 1920s.

Experiments in Opera II, Jessie Marino’s string of party tricks, took place on a darkened stage on which a number of burning matches represented types of opera projects. Another clever joke placed a spotlight on a singer mouthing the speech and song of an unseen singer of the opposite sex, while another sketch involved the singers in a sweet valentine to some 1960s Motown clips.

If only The Voice Machine composers’ imagination and craft had approached the level of the four singers’ vocal facility and dramatic assurance, this well-intentioned experiment could have been much more successful.

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