Bay Area composer Erling Wold’s new solo chamber opera, starring acclaimed tenor John Duykers, is enjoying a thrillingly intimate world premiere this week under the banner of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Based on the deeply weird story of 19th-century scion and medical curiosity Edward Mordake (driven to suicide by the residual visage on the back of his head of his female "evil twin"), Mordake packs a multisensory punch inside a tightly knit, highly portable production—one clearly unwilling to sacrifice opera’s theatrical grandeur to avant-garde budgets.
Thanks, in part, to Mordake’s use of some contemporary video technology and an exquisite design concept, it doesn’t have to. Sets, properties, costumes and lights are all kept to a lean but choice minimum in a production that takes supreme advantage of a prerecorded electronic score as well as a striking interactive visual panorama featuring a video motion-sensing program designed by German engineer Frieder Weiss. Simultaneously embracing and defying the modest upstairs space at Shotwell Studios, director Melissa Weaver’s sharp and resourceful staging blends Wold’s stirring minimalist themes, Duykers’ formidable and dynamic performance, poet Douglas Kearney’s richly fleshed out and darkly funny libretto and the luxuriant all-enveloping video scheme into nothing short of a total experience.
"It was designed to be very easy to move," explained Wold of the production during a tech rehearsal last week. "The piece I did before this [Sub Pontio Pilato], with John [Duykers] in fact, was this big monstrosity. It had about 15 instruments and a huge cast and all this stuff—it was ridiculous. I didn’t even make it to the cast party because I was still cleaning up 12 tons of equipment. How great to just carry your lighting system with you! And we can do it in a place that has very minimal theatrical [accoutrements]. It could be in a warehouse space."
The software designed by Wold’s friend Weiss is an important part of that mobile strategy, and Wold goes on to explain how it works. "There are two rear projectors that are doing kind of traditional background video effects. Then we also have an infrared camera and an infrared light that’s tracking [Duykers] and that’s used by the computer to generate a [projected] picture that follows him." Wold, who in addition to composing the music also produced the show, illustrates with reference to the laptop computer that will be manned by Andy Peterson during the performance, and which at the moment shows a silhouette of Duykers on the screen. "We can project [a] texture onto just him and it doesn’t spill onto anything else. It’s an infrared camera, so even if there’s no light on him it can still see him because we’re shining a bright infrared light onto the stage that you can’t see. From that he gets a silhouette and then uses that silhouette to compute whatever [effect processing] he’s doing. Then that image is projected back onto [Duykers]. Andy is running this just like you would lighting cues. We’re selecting cues that have a particular algorithm that cause a particular effect to happen. And then the rear projector is just a movie that is timed with the music."
Weiss’s system mimics other motion-sensing programs but has been developed with live performance in mind. "Other people do things that are similar but the on-the-body thing is a bit specific to him, and he has used it for dance performances at various places in the world. This is the first time that he’s worked to try to make a story rather than just abstract images. [Duykers] plays several characters, so sometimes the characters are being defined by a particular look he has [projected onto and around him] at a given moment."
Ultimately, concludes Wold, while it offers some quick-change possibilities, the video and computer set-up is merely a sleek substitute for more traditional and cumbersome equipment. "Yeah, you could have used different costumes; you could have used different lights. And lights can change quickly, obviously. But you can’t change costumes if you’re having a dialogue with your evil twin. So that’s one thing. I’m not making a huge deal out of this except that it’s kind of cool. It’s just another technology. I mean, 150 years ago [stage] lights were an amazing [innovation]."
Judging by opening weekend, however, the result is much more than a pragmatic substitute for a bank of expensive lights or a hefty wardrobe rack. If the story of Mordake is a tragic, eerie and at times wickedly funny rumination on the split in the human ego—the violent psychic struggle to reconcile the different parts of our own porous personality—we appreciate its universal tensions because it wraps us so completely in its subject’s deeply fraught isolation. To this end, the small and untraditional space upstairs at Shotwell Studios turns into a real advantage. "We wanted to find a theater where we could do this completely panoramic thing that took over and was also intimate," notes Wold, "but then was long enough that we could do the projection." Mordake arises viscerally and memorably amid its hauntingly ecstatic score and dynamic visual panorama (given a moody Victorian sweep by artist Lynne Rutter’s graceful paintings) as a shimmering, self-contained, private world with room enough for us all.
As SFIAF rolls into its second and final week, at least three other productions in the festival’s fifth annual season of global performance programming offer multidisciplinary work with strong video or film components, including Element Dance Theater and Navarrete x Kajiyama’s The Mapping Project, the Kate Foley Ensemble’s The Angels of Sudjerac, and dancer/choreographer Paige Sorvillo and Blindsight’s Thirty Seven Isolated Events.
The last of these takes the relationship between the virtual image and the body as its central theme—Thirty Seven’s complex mix of graphically altered live footage and prerecorded computer-generated material (all designed by Los Angeles-based media artist Lucy HG) becoming an immersive, interactive environment for a group of dancers, led by Sorvillo, who channel aching desire and deadening solitude against an alternately melodic and industrial score contributed by Oakland’s Liz Allbee and Australian Susan Hawkins.
The piece advances Sorvillo’s exploration over the last several years of the line between a numbed solipsism and the capacity for empathy that arise from a visually networked world. "One section is very much informed by an image from Don Delillo’s Mao II," explained Sorvillo during a recent rehearsal. "Within that text was this idea of the bystander effect—of there being something of note happening but because there’s a crowd, no one responds. I look at that as similar to the way we are acting politically in the world right now. We can look on from a distance and say, yeah, it’s really a bad thing that we’re killing people in Iraq but are you going to do [something about it]? Am I going to do it? There’s this hesitation. So we’ve been working with that idea of the bystander as, first of all, a non-actor—and therefore an actor, because they’re choosing not to do anything—and also [exploring] how the gaze of that person works, looking at the intersection of compassion and complicity."
Sorvillo’s collaborator, Los Angeles-based media artist Lucy HG, who has also written on the use of new media in new art forms, points out that these questions have been in the mix for some time. "Very often I think media is used [by artists] to either emphasize the disconnect or to try and breach that impasse that it automatically makes because of its role in society," she says, citing as an example early telematic art works like Hole in Space (1980), Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s two-way live video feed which opened up for popular use and contemplation an instantaneous image space between Los Angeles and New York. "When I look at these pieces and what various artists (including us) [are doing], almost universally it’s dealing with that contrast between media that is empty of connection and isolating, and that which really serves to connect."
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