Guest post by Erin Leland
Staged inside the 2014 Whitney Biennial, three operas, originally written and scored by American composer Robert Ashley, and currently directed by Alex Waterman, took place: Vidas Perfectas, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, and Crash.
A floor to ceiling mirror forms part of the stage backdrop in both Vidas Perfectas and The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, and in Vidas, video cameras shoot around and behind the actors through mirror reflection for in-camera image overlays. E.S.P. TV, an organization dedicated to live studio broadcast, real-time edits the multiple camera angles and transformations into the live-feed television taping in front of the audience. The live feed composition changes according to a written score, melding shots of the performers with scenic footage from a town, coordinated in time with the language spoken on stage.Vidas Perfectas is the seven episode Spanish version of opera-for-television, Perfect Lives, performed live in varying incarnations since 1978. In July, Vidas Perfectas will be performed in El Paso, Texas; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and Marfa, Texas.
Actors enter the scene with their lines printed in hand. Strict memorization is never a part. Memorization of lines might be impossible. Plot premises are visible right away, however hypnotic the scripted effect. In Vidas Perfectas, there is a bank robbery, a marriage, a getaway, a distraction – the plot endlessly ropes. Yet, the plot twists fall away, and as it seems – none of it ever mattered. Only the plot’s textured details are omniscient: the returning Bartender, virtuoso piano playing, gossip. Plot is a regurgitation of a television drama through a border town.
I interviewed a performer in Vidas Perfectas, Raul de Nieves, and asked: “Originally, Perfect Lives was set on the Illinois and Indiana border. Is Vidas Perfectas set in a particular place on the Mexican border, or is it anywhere or everywhere on the border?”
Raul: “I think it’s anywhere and everywhere on the border. Vidas Perfectas, the Spanish version of Perfect Lives, to me is more like songs. I remember the first time I crossed the border here, when I moved from Mexico to California. Once you cross, you can’t go back, or you could, if you have papers. Borders, they do exist. It’s a very important piece of land that divides everything.”
I also spoke to Elisa Santiago, a performer alongside Raul in Vidas, “You played more than one character in the play?”
Elisa: “Everyone plays a few voices. Sometimes more percussive, sometimes more airy, sometimes more determined. And Alex (Waterman) always insisted that sometimes we are speaking from the character’s voice, but sometimes we are speaking from the landscape.”
Raul played several characters – the Captain of the Football Team, the Bartender, and as he said, “the way it was explained to me was, I was one of these voices that are supposed to not be there – ”
Erin: “Part of a chorus?”
Raul: “Like those voices in the back of your head that are telling you what to do or what not to do.”
Qualities in common between the three operas are slowed speech in stark surroundings, an onslaught of talking. Intermittent information leaks into the set from the world – a discussion of statistics, footage of a rolling highway, photographs of talent agency advertisements, and questions, like, “Have you ever used the telephone to falsify your identity?”
Ashley writes operas about being ill at ease. The scripts are composed largely of conversations. Either the plot or the conversation, depending on the opera, becomes hard to follow. For example, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer presents a person on trial – in the original it was performed by Anne Opie Wehrer, a friend and collaborator of Ashley’s. The new version put four distinct personalities on trial over four performances during which the tone changed from combative to manic to squeamish. Elisa: “In the Trial, for instance, there are proxy characters and interrogators – the proxies could answer real answers from their own lives, or answers through Anne’s story. They had really researched Anne’s biography and her answers, and they could give her answers.”
Interrogators sit behind the person on trial and ask questions, until, at some point the question-askers begin to become the answer-givers, forming a interrogative chorus from behind. An interrogative meditation.
Elisa Santiago described Ashley’s method for writing scores, “Some thoughts are very short within a longer thought. There is the thought, and the reaction to the thought, in one line. It’s almost like he is asking something and answering it in the the same line. Almost talking to himself.”
Robert Ashley scripts are speech patterns built, at times, from Ashley’s own, real-life speech impediment. Ashley learned to speak slowly in order to calm a stutter. He replicated his own mannerisms in written scripts for actors to perform. The performers learn to speak by beats.
A most pronounced example comes from Crash:
The Journal [Year 2]
At two years old I got e—
I was a baby sitting in water in an iron tub on a metal t—
There’s an electric wall plug right there and wh—
Next thing is that some part of me is up in the up—
upper southwest corner of the room,
watching my mother and my grandmother
shaking my body and c—
I keep wondering why the up—
upper southwest corner.
The other day I read about a man w—
who got electrocuted by accident.
He says he was in the up—
upper southwest corner.
“Our safe anchor is the page,” said Elisa, “but you can be a little open. Even though time is very specific – you never want to lose that beat, if a piece is in 5 or in 7, we don’t want to lose the 7, but sometimes things get more circular. It’s always not so sharp. If we drift a little in this thing, becoming a little more open, then as a listener, you don’t know where the 7 goes, and that’s when I love it the most. As a dancer and as an improviser, I always loved that moment when you have time so in you, when you’ve been counting a little too much, almost you can stop counting. The beat – it’s inside. And you can be above it.”
I asked Raul, “You were usually speaking in time with another performer, Elisa. Did it help you to keep time with someone else?”
Raul: “It’s actually harder. If either of us jumped a page or a couple of paragraphs, I’d wonder, how do we get back? You have to silence yourself to get back.”
Erin: “And then did it have a lasting impression on you to have learned how to speak someone else’s voice?”
Raul: “Yes, I’ll be doing my own work and then suddenly my voice starts sounding different. You know, especially when I’m just performing in front of someone, it’s almost like it’s already in my head, and it wants to come out again.”
Ashley’s final, autobiographically-derived opera, Crash, debuted in the Whitney Biennial shortly after Robert Ashley died this year at 83. Three kinds of dialogue form the script: a catalog of each year of Ashley’s life, from age one until age eighty-four, each year journaled in a two or three sentence summary; a telephone conversation about researched superstitions, for example, a person’s height as it relates to success, or the female – ten, and male – fourteen, year life cycles; and finally, a melodic and detached retelling of a man’s collapsing spells in social settings, especially around people thought to be important.
At the time of Robert Ashley’s death, numerous memorial postings appeared on the internet featuring remembrances. One in particular brought to mind an image of Robert Ashley standing on the border of a crowd – composer Alvin Lucier wrote, “I remember standing with him at gatherings in the Midwest, simply listening to people talking. He once remarked that, to his ears, the dull roar of many people talking was symphonic.”
Based in New York, Erin Leland is an artist using photography, writing and video. She has recently exhibited in the group exhibition, White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart at the ICA in Philadelphia and in her solo exhibition, Everything is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas. A new series of photographs is included in the group show, Psychic Panic, in Pittsburgh, on view through June 29.