Review: A ‘Phantom Opera’ Dreams Between Life and Death
“Everyone will now be too far away,” a character quietly sings in Aaron Siegel’s new “Rainbird.” It’s a softly shattering summary of what death does.
That line stuck in my mind during the work that followed excerpts from “Rainbird” on the program Thursday evening at Roulette in Brooklyn: “The Nubian Word for Flowers,” a new opera by Pauline Oliveros left unfinished when she died, just over a year ago.
Ms. Oliveros was a beloved maverick, an electronic-music pioneer who turned to an earthy brand of conceptualism focused on meditative listening, improvisation and text-based “scores” that anyone could follow. What she left of “The Nubian Word for Flowers” required completion: by her librettist, creative partner and spouse, the writer and director who goes by Ione; by a team of sound designers; by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble; by collaborators from the company Experiments in Opera.
It was, by all accounts, a labor of love from artists who had known and worked with Ms. Oliveros, joined in finishing what she started and honoring her memory. For at least a few minutes, I thought as the performance began, everyone wasn’t now too far away.
Endearingly idiosyncratic, a sometimes awkward (and rather long) marriage of intimate instrumental textures and all-too-traditionally-heroic vocal ones, “The Nubian Word for Flowers” is a ghost story, what its creators call a “phantom opera.” It begins — if such a surreal, stylized narrative can be said to do something as standard as that — with the death of Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), one of Britain’s key colonial officials in Africa and its war secretary at the start of World War I, when his ship sank off the Orkney Islands.
Kitchener (the clear, evocative Michael Weyandt), in some state between death and life, ends up on a dreamlike version of the Nile River island that would later bear his name. There, he is surrounded by his plants — he was an expert botanist — and his memories, and an unnamed boatman who represents the Nubian diaspora of the 20th century (here the Egyptian performer Zizo, plangently chanting and accompanying himself on the oud).Continue reading the main story
Hermione Baker (Alice Teyssier), to whom Kitchener was engaged before she died in 1885 at just 18, is evoked in gentle waltzes. The presence of the hotheaded Colonel Oswald (Peter Tantsits) recalls Kitchener’s taste for surrounding himself with young men.
Ione, sitting at a table in front of the performers, her back to the audience, and speaking, is both narrator and, in the second act, prosecutor, first providing humanizing facts about Kitchener and then indicting him for the consequences of his life’s work. She moves photographs and documents around the table, writing in a book and pointing, her arrangements visible as projections on three sail-shaped screens above the singers.
Ms. Oliveros never shied away from hints of old-fashioned lyricism, and there are classically operatic elements here, from that waltzing to a rolling-timpani storm to lyrical solos that wouldn’t be out of place in a Britten score. Her writing for the ensemble is more enigmatic, skittish and subtle: uneasy winds, a wispy guitar-violin duo, a crackling electronic background conjuring the growth of flowers.
These two worlds — humdrum vocal expression and sensuously shifting instrumental impressions — didn’t always make sense together. It was when the voices matched the strangeness of the rest — as in an eerie three-person chorus of coughing and choking, or a passage of shadowy offstage singing met with an uneasy instrumental exhalation — that the opera was most memorable.
Mr. Siegel’s “Rainbird” is an artful, short chamber-opera rumination inspired by the author Janet Frame. The vocal lines unite pop simplicity, medieval-style incantation and a singsong spoken style borrowed from Robert Ashley. With its central figure a man who finds himself stranded between life and death, it set the mood for the warmly felt haunting that was “The Nubian Word for Flowers.”Continue reading the main story