Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Forbidden Planet

April 27, 2009

Scott Shepherd and Judson Williams in The Wooster Group's La Didone
Photo: Paula Court/NYT 2009

When you’ve been at the forefront of the experimental theater scene for 30 years touring productions all over the globe, what’s left to conquer? The Wooster Group provided an answer to that question throughout April with their first operatic endeavor, which wrapped up last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The opera in question was a rarely performed 17th-century work from Francesco Cavalli, La Didone. This classic story of the love between Dido and Aeneas has been familiar terrain for centuries and has found its way into virtually any form of artistic expression you can think of. Given that the Wooster Group has managed to come up with something new to say about this story is remarkable and it may have more serious implications for opera stagings than anything I’ve seen in quite a while.

Or maybe not. The Wooster’s La Didone is about as far from opera as you can get while still having enough similarities to legitimately call yourself one. Cavalli’s work has been cut down to a sleek 90 minutes. Moreover, what remains has not only been fused with another narrative, but one as far removed from Baroque opera as you could imagine. The other piece playing out simultaneously is a 1965 Italian science fiction film Terrore nello spazio, or under its English moniker, Planet of the Vampires. The space-suited cast of actors and singers recreate scenes from the film by mimicking the actual shots from the film which are simultaneously played back on monitors around the stage. Meanwhile the events of the opera continue, either directly integrated into the space events or running concurrently with them. It’s a heady, rapid-fire mix that verges on stimulus overload throughout. There are dueling supertitles for the film’s English language dubbing and the opera’s Italian libretto. The re-orchestrated music, provided by keyboard, accordion and lute, is often accompanied not only by singing, but also by dialogue, electronic beeps and other ambient noise from the film. When the gods speak, electric guitar is added to the mix. Everyone is amplified to different extents at different times.

What does all this mean? I'm not exactly sure. There are connections between the two narratives about coming back from the dead, the reception of travelers and other themes. There is also an implication that Dido and Aeneas can be read to a modern ear as easily as space aliens as they can classical figures. Director Elizabeth LeCompte and her cast take a stance that can be both bemusing and seriously devoted to both opera and B-movie science fiction as they are tangled together in the performance. There are real moments of laughter, but the tone is never "disrespectful" in any way to either primary source. It's a kind of theatrical mixing more directly akin to common practices in the popular music world for almost a decade. Not that dramatic texts haven't been modified and adapted this way for centuries, but perhaps not before with so much technological flair and with such willingness that all the seams of the junctures highlighted in ways that they can't be ignored by the spectators. In fact, The Wooster Group's La Didone may be more similar to Baroque practice than anything passing for Baroque opera today. It was not an uncommon practice for works like Cavalli's to be presented in conjunction with other dramatic pieces breaking up the action of one another as the evening wore on in an effort to keep all the guests entertained. And while I can't say that I necessarily found this moving on first pass, I did find it incredibly interesting and worth far greater attention.

The Group has brought on a small cast of very qualified vocalists including Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido, John Young as Aeneas. Andrew Nolan, and Kamala Sankaram who also smartly plays accordion, round out the vocal end of the cast. Yet everyone is expected to sing at least a little, as everyone must act in both components of the piece. And, while it may be easy to recognize the trained voices, the cast was otherwise integrated seamlessly, doubling for roles in both narratives. Best of all, while the vocal performances are strong, the intention is not that they are honored and preserved above all else. They are often interrupted by other activities and sometimes accompanied by other sounds. They can be either enhanced or played down depending on the circumstances. It's this interest in the larger objectives of the work that make La Didone interesting from an operatic perspective considering how conservative and uninteresting so much traditional opera performance has become at least in this country. The Wooster Group is again stepping forward and raising the bar on everyone else. It's remarkable and well worth seeing. Luckily, we in Los Angeles will get our own chance to see it this coming June when, I'm told, The Wooster Group will be visiting REDCAT with the same production June 11-21. Keep your eyes open for more details.


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