Wednesday, April 9, 2008

NY Event Number Three: Seeing a dress rehearsal at the Met.

Thanks to the company I work for, I had the good fortune of sitting in on the afternoon dress rehearsal today of Phillip Glass's opera, Satyagraha, which will mount at the Met in two days. The title is actually a combination of two Sanskrit words and is the name of the practice of nonviolent resistance used and developed by Gandhi (so says/confirms the wiki, to which we all bow). It's music is quite beautiful, and this new production originally staged in England (w00t! I knew I picked the right country to move to.) by the English National Opera and a company called Improbable, who I am slowly falling in deep artistic love with, really struck me. So much that I felt the need to blog about it. Incidentally, if you like Neil Gaiman and know The Wolves in the Walls, Improbable produced it for the stage as a "Musical Pandemonium." Enough said.

But give me a moment to explain something: not only is this a New York Event, but it is also a piece of great art. As it will be a while till I get to England, I feel like I'm going to have to talk about other things here in the time being, without diverging too far from the original, founding, and central idea/purpose for this blog. Under that heading falls, I think, an opportunity to discuss the kind of work I'd like to start producing once I get to England. Specific ideas and topics that I'd like to produce art about will likely remain hidden from this blog--I am pretty private about stuff I intend to develop, always worried about artistic thievery (it's true: I'm a paranoid fuck). But discussing form and methods of production I think are totally okay. And if I see something that really works, to the point I really want to share it here, then I will. It's all the excuse I can offer. I hope that will suffice.

The opera uses the original Sanskrit text of the Bhagavad Gita, a really wonderful epic poem and Indian religious text. One of the reasons I love operatic music, the little that I know of it, is because it’s often written in a language that is not English. Because of the foreign language, and the sound that operatic singing produces (far from normal speech), what is being said textually and directly, is less immediately accessible to the audience. (Unless, of course, you know Sanskrit.) This affect makes language as a tool here secondary, and forces the theatre artist to convey with body, vocal production (we’re talking about the affect of sound here, not the words themselves), staging and other theatrical affects (lighting and the rest) paramount in portraying a story that would be incomprehensible to most on a simple, spoken level. It should also be noted that this production is done sans the Met Titles usually used for performance, and instead projections of short sections of the English translation of the text are thrown onto the back wall, giving the basic overview of what’s being sung as opposed to a line-by-line interpretation.

This kind of dismissal of language (though it must be acknowledged that language does provide the opera structure and aids in the conception of some of the specific staging the Skills Ensemble pulls off beautifully) I think can be likened to circus, clown, and strict physical work--basically anything that is performed sans or sans distinct text--in that it asks the audience to respond in a more primal way, associating the bodies on stage with their own bodies, identifying with them, projecting themselves onto the journey the stage characters make more directly than they would for a piece where dialogue is used, which can be colored by regional accents, implied meanings and cadences by the actor, etc. In this way, non-text based performance can be more universal, even when dealing with a specific story, ie: Ghandi's. The program I'm going into deals a lot with developing original work, without coming from a place of text OR working with ancient text and developing work out of that. It was exciting to experience first hand such a brilliant work dealing with those principles.

Something else here, which I touched on briefly above, is the element of sound in performance. I love sound because it's so isolated, and can often be one of the most powerful elements in terms of establishing setting and mood--I know it's a movie, but I'd like to give a nod to Alien here as one of the best examples of this. It's something I had wanted to play around with for my grad school audition piece, but ran out of time to develop my idea fully. Hopefully I'll be able to revisit it and experiment how to make shape with this element in the upcoming school year.

But getting back to what was produced here, we're not just talking orchestration, which worked a lot to drive and maintain tension through the story (Glass loves his repetitious themes, no doubt), but also vocal performance. The thing about vocal performance, likened to the above idea about an audience's relationship with movement, is that it is something the body can physically and organically produce. It's resonate (literally, figuratively) because it is in the audience's capacity (in most cases) to do that themselves, again playing on the universality of that method of performance. Being a yogi, I do believe that different energy is produced and sent in different tone and pitches of sound, and that's something I'd like to explore as well.

Okay: last thing. This production really demanded a lot of the ensemble, and I loved that. Watching an entire company build the setting that they're going to be performing in is a wonderful performance tool, and constantly engages the audience in experiencing the transformation that is a key element to theatre entirely. Along with the Skills Ensemble (aerial, puppet, and circus artists employed for the production to do the business a singing chorus member would be unqualified to do), the chorus is in charge of setting some of the stage dressing, and it just totally worked. It was really powerful imagery, particularly due to such an en masse grouping covering the stage of the Metropolitan, with simple but direct movement. And I loved it.

Re-reading this post, I have to say I am the master of the run-on. Sorry about that guys, but look forward to more of it in the future.

Anyway, if you're in the NY area, save your pennies and catch this if you can.

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