The 1979 chamber opera Kopernikus, which received its New York City premiere on 15 May at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, seems somehow to gain the weight of authenticity by virtue of the short life and tragic end of its composer, the Montreal-born Claude Vivier.

Sebastian Zubieta © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Sebastian Zubieta
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Vivier came to a rather inglorious end in 1983, stabbed by a prostitute in his Paris apartment. Just 35 at the time, he was working on a piece titled Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?). His draft was cut short at the moment of the protagonist being stabbed in the heart. Kopernikus, a musical detailing of the passing into the afterlife, had premiered in Montreal just a few years earlier. Vivier, of course, had no special knowledge of the great beyond, but clearly held more than a passing interest, and the illusion of prescience is hard to ignore.

In Kopernikus, he approaches the unknowable in the abstract, with a text delivered by a septet of vocalists in a language of his own invention. His notes to the piece, however, reveal a familiar, if not altogether trite, vision of the afterlife. Agni (the freshly released spirit) encounters “Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan and Isolde, Mozart, the Master of the Waters, Copernicus and his mother,” he writes. “There is no story but rather a series of scenes in which Agni evolves towards total purification as she ultimately reaches a state of Pure Spirit.” The listener may be forgiven for being glad the libretto is in an unknown tongue.

The current production, produced in collaboration with the Festival de Nueva Ópera de Buenos Aires, comes to Brooklyn for a two-night run produced by the Americas Society, adds doggedly literal video by the Argentinian artist Sergio Policicchio to help “tell” the story. The audience is cast into the vantage of Agni, spiraling headlong into the cosmos before a light appears and introduces itself as Merlin. “Welcome to the kingdom of mutations, a melody will be your guide,” Merlin says (in subtitles). “Don’t be afraid, you’re already old. Come into the light. The melody of death will overcome you.”

<i>Kopernikus</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Kopernikus
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The white light greeting was missed by much of the audience, craning their necks to watch the members of the International Contemporary Ensemble positioned in the back of the room. There quickly arose a baritone and horn nightmare, rising into a satisfying cacophony with a gong cuing more voices to enter the ruckus. The music settled into a slow pulse, the star dissolved into a blue sky seen through leafy tree branches, and we began an ascent to the sun. The occasionally pixelating video dropped the text for a spell and the astonishing soprano of Hai-Ting Chinn propelling the proceedings.

The instrumental score (for violin, oboe, trumpet, trombone and three clarinets, with the singers all adding percussion) often relied on shifting staccato unison counts (four fours, two twos, silence, drone) with the voices sometimes mumbling, sometimes erupting into profundo. The ensemble committed some wonderful, banshee-like swells and a memorable violin/trombone duet revealed an underlying strength in orchestration. But what saved the piece was a compelling sense of disorientation. The stepping-into-the-unknown was not entirely unconvincing, and acts of theatrical illusion (such as the orchestra in playback over the PA three quarters of the way through) kept things moving along.

<i>Kopernikus</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Kopernikus
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

It wasn’t entirely clear to what degree the music and video corresponded, other than simply being concurrent. At the same time, it seemed neither could stand on its own. It was something of a “happening” reliant not upon the greatness of any particular contributing factor (composer, performer, director, choreographer) but on the overwhelm of it all. In the digital age, however, overwhelm is a hard thing to sell. Still, in this resonant, marble room, in the midst of the energy of live performance, and in the face of eternal questions (however hackneyed), it was a compelling way to spend an hour.

But as a set piece, it was reminiscent of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s production of Hans Werner Henze's El Cimarrón a few days prior. Both were distinctly of their day, but not aging well does not condemn a work to irrelevance. When it comes time for history to determine which works of the late 20th century will be remembered, it’s important that the relevant evidence be presented. A work without a performance history is all but necessarily doomed to be forgotten, or at least confined to the annals of academic text. And it is nevertheless fascinating to see how culture collapses onto itself, how the cutting edge becomes canon or cliché, how greatness can sometimes be sculpted from butter, other times from stone.

***11