Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Visionary, Sardonically Hilarious, Grimly Dystopic New Opera Looking at You Debuts in the West Village

Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25

Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.

The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decided to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.

In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies about how benign it all is in perfect techno-speak.

Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.

Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.

Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”

Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.

Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.

Advertisements

September 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Challenging Ideas and Tonalities at the New York Festival of Song

This season’s concluding concert of the New York Festival of Song series Tuesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was characteristically challenging and entertaining. NYFOS’ definition of art-song takes the idea of lieder (essentially, operatic songs without the opera) and brings it into the 21st century, musically and lyrically. Some of the works on the bill were basically opera songs but a lot weren’t, with a nod to the adventurous downtown 80s and what are turning out to be the equally adventurous teens. Put together by New Yorker scribe (and prolific art-song writer and advocate) Russell Platt, it teamed a talented parade of singers with versatile pianist Thomas Sauer, who deserved top billing here for tackling a dizzyingly diverse, technically challenging series of compositions and pulling them off with flair and sensitivity. Platt explained that this year’s theme was “a snapshot of Generation X music,” which for him meant taking “an irreverent tone to text.” Which when you think about it is punk rock, pure and simple: it may be more comforting than accurate to assign credit to GenX for much more than effeteness, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

The highlight of the evening was a trio of songs by Lisa Bielawa, a powerful and eclectic composer who looks back far beyond her own generation – in this particular case, to Franz Kafka. Violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt smartly chose to read the texts before launching into the songs (written for her by Bielawa around 2001-03), alongside Matthias Bossi on pump organ and percussion. A parable of the longing to find order in disorder was vividly anxious, lit up with the violin’s quavery intensity, overtones and glissandos against the organ’s placid tones, followed by a more playful take on existential angst and then a piece about the nature of ghosts illustrated with sepulchrally muted pizzicato. Kihlstedt followed this with her own take on a Robert Louis Stevenson poem on a “nevermore” theme, which she’d discovered via a Google search (could it be that the Edgar Allen Poe estate or its equivalent needs to pay off Google to get top billing for that particular keyword?). She began on trumpet-violin, again contrasting against the warm washes of the organ, eventually switching to violin for a bitingly rustic, minor-key theme that eventually came full circle, ending pensively and unresolved.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was a parody of MTA snafus and subway announcements written by Gilda Lyons, delivered with grand guignol drama, a-cappella, by Sarah Wolfson and Blythe Gaissert. In its own cruelly sarcastic way, it was just as Kafkaesque as Bielawa’s songs. Harold Meltzer also contributed three settings of texts by Ohio poet James Wright, given coloratura nuance by tenor Kyle Bielfield over piano melodies that ranged from creepy, inchoate iciness, to Pat Metheny-ish meandering against a central tone, to allusions to gospel and the blues, all handled deftly by Sauer. A sadness pervaded all of them, roadkill juxtaposed against dead dreams and unrequited homoeroticism.

And Platt also included a quartet of his own songs, mining a similarly dispirited Midwestern milieu via texts by Paul Muldoon set to noirish, chromatically-fueled piano that ranged from bracing atonalism to neoromantic angst. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier dignified these portraits of a smaller, claustrophobic world (Platt spent some time there after college and clearly wanted out) with a raw, rugged intensity, finding drama in the seemingly mundane without going over the top, at least for the most part.

Not everything on the bill was as successful. Sometimes the stylized “scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango” operatics (Bouvier found himself rolling his R’s periodically although he was singing in English) overwhelmed the content. And a coy hail-mary pass, sort of a composer’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” should have been left on the rehearsal room floor. Still, it was good to see a full house respond enthusiastically to a program that so often embraced the cutting edge.

April 26, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment