Guerilla Opera, ensemble in residence at Boston Conservatory, opened its new season at Boston Conservatory on Sept. 14 with a new production of Heart of a Dog by Rudolph Rojahn, which the company had also presented in 2007. This 35-minute production offers no seats for the audience. The viewers walked around with the cast under the guidance of Carnival Barker (Sean George), creating shifting perspectives for all involved and a greater intimacy for the viewers. Afterward, there was a short talk-back in which the viewers could ask the company questions. This was extremely important for this (or any) reviewer, since he could not take notes during the performance.
The excellent musicians, just four in number, were cellist Javier Caballero, violist Gabriela Diaz, saxophonist Kent O’Doherty (he also played the part of the Suitor), and percussionist (and Artistic Director) Mike Williams. With such minimal orchestration, this opera sounds far from your grandmother’s 19th century opera. There are no lush tunes, but the different textures applied to the characters (the leitmotifs) are distinct. There is much percussion, typical for a modern work, and the saxophone, with its jazz associations, creates its own colors. The vocal writing ranges all over the place, from screaming to violence to sexuality.
The opera’s basis, a 1925 Russian story by Mikhail Bulgakov, was immediately disliked by the Soviets because it mocks the “new” Soviet man and was suppressed there until 1987. It’s the story of a stray dog (played by the brilliant Aliana de la Guardia, who doubles as general manager of Guerilla Opera) that takes human form when a doctor (played by Brian Church) implants it with a pituitary gland and the testicles of an alcoholic. The dog takes on some of the human qualities of the donor but also retains his own baseness because he retains his dog’s heart. Puns feature prominently in the original. The best is that the original drunken donor is Chugunkin, whose root translates as cast iron — a reference to Stalin, “man of steel.”
The stage director, Copeland Woodruff, has a different take from that of Sally Stunkel, who directed the 2007 premiere production which I didn’t see, but the cast freely admitted that this one was “novel.” For one thing, in this production puppets were used to indicate that the dog manipulates the human, a brilliant stroke of staging. That the dog is played by a woman perhaps mirrors Bulgakov’s riffs on what we now might call “gender identity.”
Visually, the opera is stunning, mostly due to the deft lighting by Tiáloc López-Watermann. But there is also creative use of costuming (the dog has whiskers and crawls around the floor until she becomes human; the Carnival Barker looks the part.) The superb puppetry is mostly due to puppet designer Sean Cote. The fact that the audience moves from time to time means that it has new perspectives on the action, and also means it has to work more than a seated audience does. This applies to the cast, too. The singers are straining frequently. The housekeeper, Glorivy Arroyo, acknowledged in the talk-back that she screamed all the time. One viewer asked an interesting question about leitmotifs, to which the ensemble replied that these were supplied by different orchestrations, a common trick by modern composers.
“Heart of a Dog” has had many guises, including a 1973 comic opera, a 1976 Italian movie starring Max von Sydow as the surgeon, a 1988 Soviet film, and a 2010 Dutch National Opera production. Hurry to catch this version, which runs September 17, 19, 23, 24, and 26.