Itʼs not quite correct to call Steve Reichʼs Three Tales an opera. There are no characters or plotline, the action happens almost entirely on a prerecorded video, and the vocalists have to sing in a decidedly unoperatic manner. But as music theater itʼs a riveting work, revived with punch and precision by the National Theater this season.

<i>Dolly Kismet</i> © Beryl Korot
Dolly Kismet
© Beryl Korot

Composed between 1998 and 2002 by Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, Three Tales offers a harrowing portrait of three pivotal events of the 20th century: the Hindenburg disaster, the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. Newsreel and film clips from the first two events and a series of talking heads weighing the implications of the third are projected on a large screen, in front of which five singers and a chamber ensemble provide minimalist musical accompaniment.

The piece starts like an assault, and over 65 minutes never lets up. Four percussionists set a nonstop, driving rhythm that gives the march of technology an inexorability and listeners used to more genteel fare a headache. The singers mostly echo lines of text that appear on the screen, like “It could not have been a technical matter” during the Hindenburg segment, and the instrumentalists do no more than set a tone – ominous as the Hindenburg goes up in flames, poignant as Bikini islanders are forced to leave their home, and surprisingly neutral as scientists, journalists and academics ponder reducing the human body to a machine.

<i>Hindenburg</i> © Beryl Korot
Hindenburg
© Beryl Korot

All of which reduces the singers and musicians to automatons in a work that looks askance at technology, an irony that was not lost on Reich and Korot. In an interview that is sent out with the video for the production, Reich is asked about this and says, “If you want to know about a certain kind of car or medical procedure, you donʼt take advice from someone who knows nothing about them or has no experience with them. This piece needed artists who had feelings about technology based on years of experience.” 

Point taken. But exactly what those feelings are is hard to discern. Itʼs clear in the first two segments that technology tends to dominate man, rather than vice versa. Which doesnʼt stop man from trying to play God in the third segment. A coda suggests that the emerging endpoint of evolution is artificial intelligence, concluding with an MIT researcher cooing like a mother to a childlike robot. Repeated text splices from Genesis throughout the Bikini and Dolly segments add a visual and musical counterpoint of sorts, reminding viewers that God created man in his image and gave him dominion over the earth and all living things. Whether weʼve handled this responsibly is ultimately left to the audience to decide.

As there is absolutely no room whatsoever for interpretation in this piece, itʼs meaningless to talk about individual performances. The caliber of the production depends largely on how carefully the conductor and two percussionists follow click tracks on headphones, and how well the singers and musicians hold extended notes and execute repeating trills. The quality of musical education in Prague comes to the fore in the latter, mostly in the flexibility and discipline the performers show in setting aside their usual techniques and becoming, well, robotic. Conductor Marko Ivanović, one of the Czech Republicʼs few contemporary music specialists, does a superb job creating a vivid wall of sound and nailing the split-second timing required to make the music and visuals synch.

<i>Bikini Atoll</i> © Beryl Korot
Bikini Atoll
© Beryl Korot

In the end, the impact of the piece is greater than the sum of its parts, which can be difficult to keep up with. The information comes fast, often in split or repeating images that mirror the minimalist score. And at the première, a balance problem with the sound – everything is amplified – made it impossible to hear what some of the speakers in the Dolly segment were saying. Nevertheless, the lingering effect was haunting, like waking up from a dream with a jumble of images and sounds that donʼt add up to anything rational, but carry powerful emotional weight.

Technology has come a long way since this piece was composed. The question is, have we? The world is wired together like never before, but in many respects people are more isolated and less able to communicate, with alarming political consequences. Perhaps more than we would like to admit, Three Tales remains disturbingly relevant.