“In the beginning, in the beginning, there was not a beginning. The common ancestor is unknown. Between each species and the common ancestor, who is unknown, one must seek, forever seek the intermediate forms.” (Georges Aperghis, Sextuor l’origine des espèces).
The performance took place inside a non-descript office building in Mid-town Manhattan. Despite the newish marble-clad lobby downstairs, the designated floor rested on creaking wood floors, that had been subdivided by drywall. Within an audible distance, someone sang scales and the outside wall of the theater (just opposite the elevator) was decorated with pairs of headshots a before and after beneath which lay professional tag lines and phone numbers offering touch-up services. We had gathered in the corridor of what felt like a rehearsal studio a realization that only added to the curiousness of what was to come: I mean, what would an opera about Darwin look like?
When we first sat down in the theater, before the production had started, the nearby, but disembodied voice had switched from scales to Celine Dion practicing for an upcoming audition, I supposed. She continued to push through the climax of her song until the accompanying pianist would stop unexpectedly silence ensued (what signified a conversation to me) and then the two started again, just before the song’s crescendo. Two folding tables stood waiting on stage. Five binders waited patiently on each, along with a pair of rubber gloves, glasses and an assortment of small, plastic animals. (There was a pause in the Dion song, this one longer than the last). A series of steam-punkish bare bulbs had been clipped to the table and one of the walls was covered with pictures from an animal calendar. The invisible chanteuse finally completed the song and the room grew quiet. So too the house lights dimmed as six women came on stage in lab coats. One carried a cello. They bowed, we clapped and the cellist moved to the side. She sat apart from her peers who moved behind the folding tables and sat down side-by-side.
The cellist spoke first, in French (the language of the entire piece);Â she suggested both that there was no beginning and that we must look to intermediate forms to discover human nature. Drawing on both Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, Greco-French composer Georges Aperghis wrote a seventy-minute opera. With those texts as an anchor, and the ever present counter balance of the cello (the only instrument the opera calls for), we experienced a musical rendition of the history of evolution. Much of the performance is babbling â€” an assorted accumulation of consonants that sometimes mimic other life forms (a parrot for instance) but there are coherent narratives that emerge in the throng. Each of the five vocalists performs an aria on one of the following themes: Birth (Soprano I : Megan Schubert), Death (Contralto: Amirtha Kidambi), Cinderella (Mezzo-soprano: Silvie Jensen), Delivery (Soprano II: Christie Finn) and the love experience (or eros)(Soprano III: Gelsey Bell). The Cellist, Émilie Girard-Charest embodies theory (logos), and often seems to quote Darwin and Gould directly. Probably it would seem like madness, except that the characters delivering this production are certain of themselves and focused; they never seem bewildered by evolution but instead appear to channel its course seeming at once facilitators of process and investigators. They wield the authority of science, conducting comical demonstrations in petri dishes. The last thing I was expecting was that sense of humor and it gave so much life to the whole show, eliciting a whole range of emotional experience (for me anyway) from Laugh out Loud, to the sanguine bittersweet.
The script regularly calls for a nonsensical interlude, portions of rhythmic nonsense that separate individual solos. Always, the cellist guides the audience through the changing landscape. The production continues this way: the cellist sits to the side and interjects sensible, reflective statements. These are interrupted by longer interludes comprised primarily of phonemes the building blocks of language produced by the other singers. Much of the vocalist sound seems hysterical, harpy-like and unformed, yet perhaps aptly capturing the chaos of ecology; the five woman fall extraordinarily into sync. At those moments the audience is supported with a sudden cohesion: what often leads to the description of a particular life form: “We are in the Age of Arthropods, in the fossiliferous rocks the oldest have suddenly appeared the species belonging to the great divisions of animals. But we are in the Age of Arthropods, far more numerous than Mammals.”
Sextuor l’origine des espèces is not officially an opera. It is an oratorio. As an admitted amateur, I’ve at least discovered the broadstrokes of distinction. Operatic characters interact with one another; operas also engage historical or mythological themes. Oratorios have traditionally dealt with sacred material; they are often produced in churches and require little in the way of sets.Sextuor l’origine des espèces seems to occupy a wonderful in-betweenness where these genres are concerned. On the one hand, it uses the scientific tradition as a sacred platform, conjuring the feel of an origin-story within the terminology of science. At the same time it incorporates colloquial myth, telling the Cinderella story between the music of birds and the introduction of fish. As in a proper oratorio, the characters interact very little. What interaction exists appears incidental.
One might say the same in biology. In Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, one of the primary projects of the book is to examine where and how humanity defines itself against its animal cousins. Over the course of that discussion, Agamben incorporates an historical naturalist Jakob von Uexkill. “Where classic science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms,” Agamben writes, “Uexkhill instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are noncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score at the center of which lie familiar and at the same time, remote little beings called Echinus esculentus, Amoeba terricola, Rhizostoma pulmo, Sipunculus, Anemonia sulcata, Ixodes ricinus, and so on” (p. 40). Agamben goes to describe precisely how the fly cannot physically perceive the spider web that the worlds of spider and fly while being mutually reliant essentially exclude one another. To return to SLDE, the piece occurs both as a cohesive potentially operatic whole, as an oratorio comprised of several, independent, interlocking parts.
And then there is the most marvelous end. Because any biography must surely account for the demise of its subjects, a performance based on the fleeting occasion of life must also account for its own disappearance. Suddenly humanity’s advantage its peculiar capacity to tell a story seems especially mistaken in its privilege. A gross delusion we share, even Homer’s posthumous fame would appear insignificant: another bit of fodder for time’s desert. SLDE admits to the weight of that knowledge by drawing through audience into darkness. We feel its immanence. The stage goes dark after a particularly moving solo by Love, in which she describes the pleasure of being alive, just shy of an epiphany perhaps. “But I, I was truly having fun. I whirl about as if drunk. I understood that I was carrying a great weight on my shoulders. I have an explanation for the beginnings of life on Earth. I understood that I was already lucky to be a living being.” Following her song (she has taken off her lab coat and wears only a dress now), the other performers gather in a circle, joining hands around a single light. The cellist puts down her bow and joins the others, who must open their circle wider to admit her. “O, you who listen to me tell this story full of memories and holes, we are that improbable,” says the Cellist in French, “and fragile species heading toward extinction and the extinction of all species, internal causes, external causes, I do not know, we the original species that tells the story of its origins full of holes and gaps, because we have so few documents, an incomplete story of the Earth in an ever changing dialect, of which we have but the last volume, some fragments of its chapters and some lines of its pages or some letters, and words of uncertain meaning! Immense Nature improbable and unpredictable, contingent nature, where are we going, we who say life was wonderful, we who say life is wonderful?”
This production made its New York debut once before one year ago. Almost the same cast performed at Joria Productions in 2012. After several months of preparation this year, they had a three-night run. I felt so fortunate to be there. It brought so much to mind for instance, Timothy Morton’s ideas about Nature and how there is no “over there” Nature, only a mesh we all inhabit together: SLDE captures that, while at the same time maintaining the tension of a human narrative. It also made me think about artist Marion Laval-Jeantet’s experiments in hybridity and how these potentially challenge hierarchical habits between species. And then, of course, the very recent attempts Russian scientists have made to drill into an ancient lake in Antarctica: in order to see what life may have endured there, outside our human timescapes. There is so much more to write about and think about, perhaps most of all the musical components, which I am probably the least qualified to consider. But. It was amazing. The energy and vitality of its members as they negotiated what I can only imagine to be a most challenging musical score. I hope they can put it on again, for a longer run; I would love to see it again.
**Sextuor l’origine des espèces was directed by Jeremy Bloom and Nick DeMaison with lighting design by Kryssy Wright. It was hosted by Joria Productions from February 2nd-4th, 2012.