Opera has existed for many centuries at the crossroads of several artistic disciplines, functioning as a platform for singers, dancers, puppeteers, artists, builders, designers, writers and so forth. The word itself translates from Italian as “work, effort, labor”; however, opera has long been associated specifically with a theatrical art featuring the human voice. Robert Ashley, who passed away only two years ago in March, revolutionized the opera genre in the second half of the 20th century, and his oeuvre always invites the question “What makes opera opera?” In a posthumous première of his opera-novel Quicksand  at The Kitchen in New York City, Ashley’s ingenuity was awakened by a troupe of artists who understand his work on a spiritual level.

<i>Quicksand</i> © Paula Court
Quicksand
© Paula Court

Published first as a novel in 2011, the libretto for the opera Quicksand was unabridged from its literary state and was in fact spoken, not sung, by the composer’s recorded voice. The plot is familiar to the crime genre; the first scene opens on a male protagonist finding himself in a foreign hotel room where he shoots the room service, whom he suspects of conspiring against him. The protagonist, a composer who works as a courier/spy for a United States Government agency “The Company”, is on a yoga tour of a unnamed Southeast Asian country with his wife when two tour guides convince him to join their revolution against their government. 

Ashley’s focus on human speech over sung melodies certainly cocks the listener’s head, but the assembly and presentation of independent art forms with the highest degree of free will granted to the artistic partners made the opera exceptional. Each collaborator was given the liberty to create art based on Ashley’s 16 scenes, but given no guidelines as to style, time period, or effect, the creators presented material often unrelated to the narrative, placing Ashley’s design on the far side of the spectrum from Wagner’s orderly Gesamtkunstwerk. When analyzed individually, however, components of the opera did not seem absurdly avant-garde by third-millennium standards. Ashley’s own narration, for instance, is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poetry in the form of pulp noir fiction, and the choreography, which appeared at times spontaneous, followed coherent repetition.

Choreographer Steve Paxton concentrated on the idea of dance as a form of divertissement when he defined the movement for himself and performers Jurij Konjar and Maura Gahan. To add variation to the scenes, a massive patchwork blanket hung perpendicular to the floor, and Paxton often used the object to cloak the performers in amorphous forms or to swiftly remove the performers from the stage. In reoccurring instances, Konjar sat in a plain chair typing, perhaps mocking the notion of Ashley as the mystery novelist at work, and Gahan fulfilled the role of the platonic love-interest, the tour guide Pu, in a jagged pas de deux with Konjar. Aside from these few instances though, the choreography existed on its own terms, providing the listener to momentary break from Ashley’s omnipresent voice, tirelessly narrating.

The electronic composition, composed by Tom Hamilton, floated in the background with the lighting and choreography. For the most part, the music, generated from a series of 16 chords, was homogenous white noise to cleanse the aural space so the audience might focus entirely on Ashley’s voice. Like the choreography, the music did not follow the narrative in a literal way, and its dynamic volume remained lesser than that of Ashley’s voice, save a few instances where the intensity grew briefly for no particular reason.

In contrast to Hamilton and Paxton, David Moody’s lighting design seemed to draw more thematically from the opera’s narrative. Flashes of light signified the start of new chapters and two white lights on either side of the stage were flashed each time a gun fired. However, being inherently abstract, the lighting also acted out scenes of its own with orbs drifting across the room and blocks of light forming orderly patterns on the floor.

Though Ashley’s narrator is at times suave, witty, and intelligent, one can’t help but wonder if he might also be paranoid or delusional. Given Ashley’s own love for mystery novels and the protagonist’s occupation (composer), it is easy to assume this story might be one Ashley fantasized about in his own moments of existential dread. As biographers and historians begin to make connections between the details of Ashley’s personal life and his operas, the events of Quicksand are sure to expound deep-rooted significance; after all, the narrator’s obsession with the young tour guide is one of the only plot motives integrated into the choreography.