In a warehouse on the San Francisco Marina, in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition building, three men in yellow workmen’s gloves are dragging a dilapidated 25-foot boat across the concrete floor. They pause and begin to sing, a fourth man standing on the boat sings with them. The voices are beautiful, the harmonies bizarre, somewhat honky-tonk and 100% Kurt Weill. We’re at a rehearsal of Opera Parallèle’s Mahagonny Songspiel.

Opera Parallèle's Mahagony © Steve DiBartolomeo
Opera Parallèle's Mahagony
© Steve DiBartolomeo

The San Francisco Bay Area is blessed with a surfeit of excellent singers and instrumentalists, attracted to this musically sophisticated area by the San Francisco Conservatory, the Symphony and the Opera and its esteemed Merola and Adler programs. Both the Symphony and Opera are high-profile organisations that in recent years have had to cater to more conservative audience tastes. Although the San Francisco Opera tries to launch a new opera every few years, these have been for the most part disappointing. High on production and attendant costs, the new fare often lacks the vigour of smaller avant-garde and experimental work. There is nothing in its program comparable to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, for example.

In answer to a clear need, several excellent smaller houses have popped up in the past decades, serving an audience with more eccentric and edgy cravings. Among those that have survived and thrived are Opera Parallèle, the Paul Dresher Ensemble and the wonderfully idiosyncratic work of Erling Wold, composer, producer of operas and libertine. These three are by no means the only experimental opera and musical theatre groups in the area but they are representative, and they have managed to endure, growing in stature and influence.

Opera Parallèle and Artistic Commitment

Opera Parallèle is the largest and most ambitious of the Bay Area’s avant-garde companies. It lists itself as a professional organisation performing contemporary chamber operas and engaged in creating ‘a new culture of dramatic vocal works’. They strive to perform the ‘most challenging works’ of the 20th and 21st centuries, placing them in smaller venues so that audiences can have ‘an intimate experience of the singers, staging, and orchestra’.

When asked why she followed the path of experimental opera, Artistic Director and conductor Nicole Paiement replied, “I think it’s part of our responsibility, as conductors, not to rely on the past but to see that music continues to evolve”.

“The most important thing”, she adds, “is that the work must be invigorating and include risk. Music used to be at the forefront of the avant-garde in other centuries. You go to a contemporary music concert now, and there are only a few people there. The music seems limited to small circles. And I question that”.

Image from open rehearsal of Opera Parallèle's Mahagony © Steve Bartolomeo | Westside Studio Image
Image from open rehearsal of Opera Parallèle's Mahagony
© Steve Bartolomeo | Westside Studio Image

In its staging and concepts, realised by Resident Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel, the company also tries to address current issues through startling combinations. For example, this year’s programme presents a back-to-back staging of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, the music of one flowing into the other, the language shifting from German to French. The two operas are set in a post-climate change world, where water is a precious resource. Adrift in a poisoned sea the disheveled crew dreams of a “Moon Over Alabama” and “the next whiskey bar”. Landing on a shattered coastline the crew sets up a stage and Les Mamelles begins. The cast shifts from all-black costumes to vivid surrealist-nightmare costumes with shiny red-leather high-heeled boots that lace to the knee. It’s a gorgeous, laughable and brilliant juxtaposition.

“I’m interested in opera”, Paiement asserts, “because it’s a collaborative form. Many different art forms are involved and because of that new musical language is less intimidating. The audience can rely on the eye or be involved with the narrative”.

Opera Parallèle began its opera production career in 2007 with a revival and staging of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar. Since then, their performances have included Berg’s Wozzeck (2010), Glass’ Orphée (2011), Tompson/Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (2011), Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (2012), and Golijov’s Ainadamar (2013), among others.

The artistic team, led by Paiement and Staufenbiel, are careful in their choices. “We try to vary our productions and with each new collaboration expand our audience base,” says Paiement. “But I have to say that the artistic quality of each piece is high. It must resonate with us as a great piece of art. We don’t choose a piece just because it’s popular. That doesn’t work.”

Paul Dresher’s Collaborations

As a composer and musician, Paul Dresher practices a variety of musical forms, one of which is experimental opera and music theater. Along with a composition background, Dresher also studied intonation and instrument building with Lou Harrison, and his compositions are often based on instruments he has created. Like Harrison, Dresher is interested in the music of Asia and Africa, studying Ghanaian drumming, Hindustani classical music and Balinese and Javanese music.

A major part of his musical work is produced for and performed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, one of the Bay Area’s innovative chamber and new vocal music performance groups. The Ensemble, formed in 1984, “commissions, performs and tours a diverse repertory of new chamber works from a wide range of contemporary composers”.

The Ensemble spent its first decade creating collaborative experimental theater/opera productions, involving the Artistic Director Paul Dresher. The best known and most widely toured of these productions is American Trilogy, a sung and spoken soliloquy comprised of Slow Fire, Power Failure and Pioneer. The American Trilogy has achieved over 200 performances worldwide.

The piece, first performed in 1985 during the Reagan presidency, is social criticism with a distinctly American flavour. The main character is a familiar ‘dangerous’ buffoon, whose monologue written by Rinde Eckert and supported by guitar, electronic keyboard and percussion conveys “the darker consequences of American attitudes: the hubris of ‘manifest destiny’, the despoiling of the environment and destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of progress and property, and the obsessive enforcement of power”.

It’s a riveting piece. More along the lines of musical theater than opera, it gives an insight into many of Dresher and Eckert’s works, most of which examine the thoughts of a solitary isolated man who is in some way victimized by his own desire for power.

And just as Dresher prefers to experiment with a raft of different instruments, the language of the performers moves through “operatic aria, speech, frenzied falsetto and declamatory incantations”; the content “vacillates between common clichés and poetic soliloquy”.

The Tyrant © Mark Palmer
The Tyrant
© Mark Palmer

The Tyrant is a similar opera, but the protagonist is a ruler rather than a Willy Loman–Everyman. Based on the writings of Italo Calvino, The Tyrant is a compactly constructed opera that tells of a man with absolute power who realizes that his power can be lost at any moment.

Like the Opera Parallèle team, Dresher is attracted to opera and musical theater because it is collaborative. “I write for a particular performer,” says Dresher, “and that shapes my thinking”. Recently, however, Dresher saw The Tyrant produced in Italy and Rotterdam. “It was fascinating to see other productions with completely different singers and presences,” he said. The experience has encouraged him to create operas for singers and performers he is less familiar with. His next project will include four singers with varying vocal types.

“In the last thirty years a lot of people, like Philip Glass, have moved away from traditional opera,” comments Dresher. “Singers must be actors and be able to inhabit the stage. Dramatic values have invigorated opera, and that has come from experimental music”.

Collaboration will continue to be essential. As the Ensemble states on its website: “We believe when the music, text, movement, visuals, and dramatic elements are created simultaneously, the resulting artwork is infinitely more meaningful than the sum of its parts”. Again, the challenge of risk and surpassing boundaries are the lure and the inspiration.

The Ensemble has also performed the work of other innovative contemporary musicians. It formed the core musical group for the world premiere and first tour in 1995 of the John Adams and Peter Sellars collaboration with poet June Jordan, I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky. They also performed the chamber opera by Erling Wold based on the Max Ernst collage novel, Rêve d’une petit fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel.

The World of Erling Wold

The work of Erling Wold is like no other. A true California eccentric and polymath, Wold has been making chamber opera pieces since the 1990s. They are, if you will, investigations of the fantastic. Wold studied composition with Robert Gross at Occidental, and Andrew Imbrie at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford, where he primarily studied computer music and mathematics. He works in the audio engineering world and as he says on his blogsite:

“I tend to avoid coming out as an engineer/math guy to the art world and as an art/lit guy to the engineering world, thinking that somehow there is a stigma of un-seriousness about being one to the other.”

A partial list of Wold’s works shows the span of his interests and his connection to the surreal. Certitude and Joy (2012), on the dangers and ecstasies of religious faith; Mordake (2008), a solo opera based on the story of Edward Mordake, a man born with a woman's face on the back of his head (libretto by Douglas Kearney); Blinde Liebe (2005), an interactive dance opera on a true crime story; Sub Pontio Pilato (2003), an historical fantasy on Pontius Pilate (libretto by James Bisso); queer (2000, revised 2011), based on the novel by William S. Burroughs; and A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1995, revised 2000), based on Max Ernst’s collage novel, with libretto by Carla Harryman.

Certitude and Joy © Lynne Rutter
Certitude and Joy
© Lynne Rutter

The religious themes come from Wold’s personal history as the son of a Lutheran minister, but the surrealist operas come from his penchant for the fantastic and absurd.

Mordake was perhaps the most integrated of the pieces in that it used the computer technology that is Wold’s other self. The electronic music careens expansively from melody to effusion, with repeated harmonic patterns, similar to minimalism. The voice of the other Mordake, the female face that whispers evil thoughts to him, is created electronically from tenor John Duykers’ voice. And the visuals, which are real-time computer images created by computer engineer and sound designer Frieder Weiss, reconfigure Duykers’ silhouette distorted and projected on the sets.

There is no plot to Mordake, and in a way that’s true of Wold’s other operas: rather than narratives, they are shadowy and philosophical illusions. Wold’s fascination with his subjects is really a fascination with the mind; each piece examines the odd and challenging in human behaviour.

On his website, Wold has a link to a blog, which is as captivating as his operas. Quirky, amusing, charming and autobiographical, Wold reveals not only his own motivations about his life as an artist, but also what it means to be an artist in a culture that inadequately values art as a human practice. Few people understand the amount of time, energy and dedication that go into making even the simplest piece of art. To conceive of and to produce art as complex and demanding as opera takes mind-boggling amounts of work, and to do so outside of the established context of mainstream art requires endless unceasing endeavour. Wold writes:

“It's the weird and strange specter of the art world, a world in which no one has enough unless they inherited it from someone or they happened to be one of the lucky few that connected with the mass market, or they have a day job. Engineering gives me the easy life … and gives me the support to do my art, and asks only that I work all the [...] time, day and night, never to see the beauty of summer, never knowing the joy of a day wasted without care.

Finally, an artist’s work is a gift to all who receive it, and opera, as strange as its premises may be, is one of the most difficult and costly gifts an artist can imagine and give. These artists have committed themselves to recreating ideas of vocal music and theater, and their dedication and originality have been consistent over years.”

So: Bravi, tutti, may the world embrace you and your art.

 

The websites of the above artists can be found at the following:

Opera Paralèlle: operaparallele.org

Paul Dresher: dresherensemble.org

Erling Wold: http://www.erlingwold.com