Monodramas and Modernism

Classic Arts Features   Monodramas and Modernism
A look at the thinkers and artists behind the operas making up City Opera's evening of Monodramas. The triple bill - consisting of Neither, La Machine de l'‹tre and Erwartung - premiered March 25.


Opera lovers inclined to adventurous fare that strays far and wide from traditional offerings have looked forward to New York City Opera to whet their appetites. From unearthing longforgotten or rarely staged works to mounting new compositions, City Opera is committed to the idea of artistic novelty grounded in risktaking and radically imaginative conceptions. Its long-standing tradition and formidable reputation has borne witness not only to the modernist canon but to novel approaches to staging, a trajectory now forcefully implemented in its current presentation of three works that span musical innovation over the last 100 years.

Adding further heft to these mini-operas (or music dramas) are the contributions of thinkers and artists whose works have served as the originating impulse behind the musical line. Arnold Schoenberg's atonal score in Erwartung provides an anguished counterpart to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim that draws upon a case history by Freud. Samuel Beckett's crepuscular libretto is rendered in a hauntingly provisory lament by Morton Feldman in Neither. And the wordless, incantatory, and piercing strains of John Zorn's La Machine de l'ê_tre animates a series of tormented drawings by the French visionary Antonin Artaud at the time of his incarceration at a French psychiatric institution. Further complementing the evening's proceedings, designed and directed by Michael Counts, are visual enhancements provided by the video artist Jennifer Steinkamp (for Erwartung) and an installation inspired by the laser art pioneer Hiro Yamagata's NGC6093 (for Neither). The intensive collaborative nature of the enterprise, exemplary of so much modernist art making, cannot be denied, nor can its antecedents that hark back to the first stirrings of modernist art practice.

Indeed, it was in the middle of the nineteenth century that Richard Wagner, driven by a need to resuscitate opera from the sclerotic effects of what he believed to be moribund forms, introduced the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total or united work of art) whereby all of opera's constituent elements would arrive at a synthesis representative of universal human nature. Not unlike the trumpet blasts that brought down the walls of Jericho, Wagner's stratagem sought to collapse the primacy of any one artistic form over another, seeking rather to engage diverse forms in service to a unified whole. Since then, the word has attained gradations of meaning, preeminent among them, at least in its contemporary manifestation, being the creation of works that employ an amalgam of artistic forms.

Wagner, who lived during the heyday of the Symbolist movement, was equally amenable to another aesthetic of the creed, that of synaesthesia. The Symbolist poets, most importantly, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, had argued on behalf of synaesthesia, suggesting degrees of correspondence between various modes of experiencing sensations and thoughts. For instance, the written word might suggest analogies with color schemes or that sounds indeed might be "heard" (or "seen") as a sequence of colors or as possessing literal meaning, and vice versa. Such intermingling, admixture, and reciprocity of forms on coeval terms freed artists to contemplate and conceive of their work not as beholden to any one primary mode of expression but as a fluid and shifting panorama of artistic intent. The process, not unlike an alchemical one, partook of a transformative dynamics, a magical shift from one shape or form to another, a transference between differing states of being.

These transitions could be either abrupt and jarring, as in later Expressionist and post- Expressionist works, or gradual and languid, as in much contemporary performance. The first would include artists such as Schoenberg in music, Vincent van Gogh and Oskar Kokoschka in painting (and, by extension, America's Abstract Expressionist painters, who, not incidentally, were crucial to the formation of Feldman's aesthetics), Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller in drama, Vsevelod Meyerhold and his biomechanics in theater, to name but a few from the classical period of modernism. Artaud's manic drawings, ruptured texts, and deliberate attacks on the inability of language to render thoughts place him within this same sensibility, though he evades easy categorization. In our age, iterations of this mode of artistic presentation have perhaps been felt more often than not in the works of theatrical directors such as Richard Foreman, Elizabeth LeCompte, and Reza Abdoh.

The other purling stream of casually unfolding interstitial art practice led to Surrealism and other art movements of our time. Here subconscious imagery predominates, comprised of dreams or nightmares, of aleatoric encounters, or of a furtive retreat from the contingencies of space, time, logic, and matter into the abstracted realm of the immaterial, the indeterminate, and the mystical, to finally countenancing the very mystery of life and death itself. The artificial and the inorganic give way to organic shapes and primal forms. Practitioners of this modality of art range from Marcel Duchamp to John Cage, both of whom occupy iconic status for our current generation of artists in diverse fields. Their influence spreads across the fields of Conceptual art, performance art, installations, and video and digital art. From Merce Cunnigham's chance-generated choreography to the micro-rhythms of a Philip Glass score, from the glacial pacing of a Robert Wilson production to the subtly graded color schemes of a Mark Rothko canvas, from the recursive lines of a Samuel Beckett text to the undulating natural forms of a Jennifer Steinkamp video, works like these refract usual methods of perception and allow for the mysterious to cast its spell upon us.

The three monodramas here offered belong to a continuum that stretches all the way back to the birth of modernism, particularly to that current of performative practice that seeks to embrace the dual phenomena of Gesamtkunstwerk and synaesthesia. In the deployment of plural arts, either as inspiration or as building blocks, each of these works aspire to creating a bold synthesis that resonates with the spirit of human attainment or failure. Zorn's collage-like musical interventions now in service to Artaud's schizophrenic and fervid visual iconography, Feldman's formative encounters with Abstract Expressionist pictorial technique which he drew upon to create his own unique sound portraits now given a voice to fill out the existential void of a quintessentially Beckettian inscape, and Schoenberg's prophetic struggle against tonality and Western musical idiom, all attest to imaginations that attain fulfillment through plentitude or reabsorption.

That these works are staged by Michael Counts is more appropriate given this young director's previous theatrical ventures, most significantly a 2001 rendition of Dante's visions of hell titled So Long Ago I Can't Remember. A sprawling work spread out over a cavernous playing area, this frenetically-paced journey into an underworld rippling with Sadean echoes, mephitic odors, sexual transgressions, perverted religiosity, and moral subversions painted a most compelling picture of a world spinning out of control. Operatic and dramatic, staged and choreographed, chaotic and controlled, Counts brought to his work a cohesiveness that, while in concert with the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk, also displayed a visionary discernment of purpose that made Dante our contemporary. He is poised to do so yet again with his slate of new collaborators.

Gautam Dasgupta, co-founder of PAJ Publications and LIVE, is a professor of theater at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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