Must we understand what’s going on in an opera? I’m a firm believer that understanding is only one way of enjoying, at least some of the time. Pelléas et Mélisande might drag if the through line were lost, but sometimes it can be a pleasure simply to relax into the mood of a piece — and sometimes, we are left with little other choice. 

Timur & the Dime Museum in Black Lodge
© Steven Pisano

David T Little’s Black Lodge, with a libretto by legendary poet Anne Waldman, received its premiere at the Philadelphia Film Center over the first weekend of October as part of Opera Philadelphia's Festival O22 and the 2022 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The 70 highly stylized minutes were a happy delirium of overwhelm, never mind the clickbait title, loosely based on WIlliam S Burroughs’s unfortunate and often referenced game of William Tell that left his wife dead. 

That scene was played out in video. The musicians – industrial rock band Timur & the Dime Museum and a string quartet drawn from the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra – were positioned on stage in front of a large screen, on which all of the action took place. Sometimes screens within the screen added to the layered tableaux. The story, by Michael Joseph McQuilken (who also directed) did not, however, strictly follow the Burroughs ordeal. It was, in mood and structure, not far from the David Lynch series suggested by the title, but it was closer to David Cronenberg’s films, and to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, with touches of 1990s Japanese jump-cut horror. It was, in other words, a nonlinear nightmare, a hybrid delusion, a dark dream from the moment the musicians walked out, clad in black, to a prerecorded bass drum roll, the house lights slowly dimming as they took their positions on stage. Other incidental sounds were also prerecorded, perhaps triggered from the keyboard, but with all the instruments amplified, the room mix was fairly convincing. In any event the whole setting was hallucinatory enough that sound sourcing hardly seemed an issue. Everything, not just the music, existed between stage and visage.

Timur in Black Lodge
© Steven Pisano

The single-named Timur did a convincing job singing the lead (other ensemble members provided additional vocals), matching the onscreen characters mouthing the words. His strong voice, swooping from vulnerable tenor to baritone rockstar swagger, was partially buried by the amplified ensemble. Supertitles on smaller screens were far enough to either side that they easily could be missed with the distraction of the enormous projection, and were difficult to read from even the middle of the room. What narrative there might have been dissipated in the air of the large cinema. 

Black Lodge itself is a sort of purgatory borrowed from Lynch’s Twin Peaks, that instantly recognizable room of red curtains, chevron floor and backwards talking. Here it was a bit more modest, with a television set and a swing, but no less cold and dreamlike. If there’s a connection to be made (and such is certainly invited by the title), Black Lodge is where one goes until they can forgive themselves for having done something unforgivable, where Burroughs and Special Agent Dale Cooper can commiserate over their separate roles in the deaths of innocent women. But, as with Twin Peaks, there was much more to Little’s opera than that, and most of it was wide open for interpretation. 

As essentially a video with live sound, a streaming or DVD release seems inevitable, and would be well worth indulging, even if home viewers would miss out on the flood light blasts and would likely set the playback volume far too low.