Dock Street Theater is Charleston, South Carolina’s oldest surviving hotel from the antebellum period. When it was restored in the 1930s, an auditorium was added and the building took the name of a 1730s theater which stood on the Queen Street (formerly Dock Street) side of the property. This theater is said to have been the first building erected specifically for theatrical performances in the Colonies. It is safe to say that the plays and operas seen here in the 1730s were nothing like Michael Nyman’s Facing Goya.

Museop Kim, Suzanna Guzman and Thomas Michael Allen © Julia Lynn
Museop Kim, Suzanna Guzman and Thomas Michael Allen
© Julia Lynn

I could have listened to the overture for the duration of the evening and been perfectly happy. Instead, an Art Banker (Suzanna Guzman) appears on an alarmingly raked stage with Goya’s head - an artifact alleged to have been removed and hidden at the artist’s death - and sings of Goya’s Dog.

Soon, four Craniometrists (Anne-Carolyn Bird, Aundi Marie Moore, Thomas Michael Allen and Museop Kim) join her, intent on measuring Goya’s head to establish his merit. They measure skulls, weigh brains and evaluate profiles to determine human worth -  if you are good or bad, happy or sad is pre-determined, they say, and can be discerned by the shape of man's skull. Through their studies, they’ve concluded that the Greek profile has the preferred proportions and that other races are somehow defective.

This leads into the Art Historians, who pit the Aryan ideal against Rembrandt’s degenerates, and then to the Biotechnologists who take it into the realm of DNA. Not satisfied with crafting a master race, they start exploring the commercial possibilities of patenting things like Goya’s “talent gene.”

Eventually, a scientist goes rogue and a cloned Goya gets past security to add his own arguments. This is something of a relief, as the debate of the four scientists has begun to feel like a Facebook thread run amok. Heated arguments come from both sides, with no hope of resolution or reconciliation.

Finally, Goya ends the discussion with “I don't need to prove that I am human. It's all there for you to see.” And we are done. They have argued it all so thoroughly, there is nothing left to think about.

The production was very well sung and often fun to watch. The scientists first appeared in stylized lab coats, with something akin to fairy bat wings (by Anita Yavich). Surveillance video shot from above was projected on the backdrop - which was particularly well done in the wing section, and was used to good effect by Anne-Carolyn Bird as she made her case for the Aryan ideal. Projection design was by Austin Switser

If you are the type to rail against anything that isn't Zeffirelli’s Tosca, this opera is very likely not for you. If performance art is what you’re after, the overture, the surveillance projections and those wings are all pretty great.