What defines opera? Plenty of ink has been spilled over the precise differences between opera, oratorio, operetta and musical theatre. Ted Hearne’s The Source is referred to as an oratorio or opera, but it has none of the hallmarks of either genre. The instrumentation is small and decidedly modern, the voices belong to pop-rock singers and are miked and processed, and the piece has no plot. The musical idiom could be described as classical only if we place a generous ‘alt-’ in front of the word.

<i>The Source</i> © Stefan Cohen
The Source
© Stefan Cohen

Where labels fail, I must resort to description. The Source is a 75-minute musical experience, currently available at San Francisco Opera Lab. Two halves of the audience face each other, surrounded by four large screens. Diverse faces fill the screens: they are watching and reacting to a video that we cannot see. Behind one screen, a seven-piece band plays an eclectic score. Four singers sit among the audience watching the conductor on tiny video screens attached to their microphones. As they sing into those microphones, their voices are auto-tuned and layered on top of the band’s playing and pre-recorded clips of songs and television shows. At the end of piece, the music stops. We watch the video.

The Source is about Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning. It doesn’t tell a story. It doesn’t demonize or lionize or even problematize Manning. It simply states. Mark Doten’s libretto is ‘found’, arranged from Manning’s chat logs and the classified documents she leaked. It mixes the personal and the data. Themes emerge in both spaces: most strongly, gender dysphoria and civilian casualties. There’s no clear arc to these themes; the tension is built more by time and the ever-faster-changing faces on the walls than by the music or text. (In such a short piece, this does not become boring.)

Like the other elements of the work, the music of The Source is decidedly unoperatic. It opens with scraping broken by sudden crashes, and moves through toe-tapping rock beats, painfully cacophonous a cappella close harmonies, and nails-on-chalkboard squeaking. The words are often inaudible, lost among the rest of the sound. When they can be heard, their connection to the music is inconsistent. A jazzy “I encrypt everything I can” seems incongruous; sounds like the clattering of hooves provide an ironic counterpoint to “just kind of drifting now”; and repetitive, short attacks by the strings serve as clever acoustical ellipses for chat fragments that trail off. 

<i>The Source</i> © Stefan Cohen
The Source
© Stefan Cohen

Music director and keyboardist Nathan Koci kept the instrumentalists and singers precise in a score where timing was essential. All of the instrumentalists impressed, but special mention is due to violinist Jennifer Cho for her playing of the devilish intro to chapter IX. The four singers (Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) showed great versatility in their vocal textures and styles. Sometimes it was possible to hear their unedited voices in the split second before processing (by Philip White)—they were clear and true. 

Perhaps The Source is a lengthy, extremely effective introduction to the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. The video makes up the opera’s last, most affecting minutes, and so is more memorable than the banging and crashing that precede it. The video ends in silence, which the audience was hesitant to break. The two halves stared at each other, stunned, unsure whether to applaud.

I don’t expect to see The Source again in a few decades, and that’s okay. Most of what we see in the opera house is grand, universal, and timeless. The Source is small, specific, and timely. This type of art doesn’t last as long or spread as far, but it’s just as important.