Guerrilla theater is “dramatization of political and social issues as a means of protest or propaganda.” It is the merging of an elitist art form (in this case opera) with the independence and efficiency of street performance in order to facilitate the artistic communication of an important message. When measured by these terms Boston-based Guerilla Opera’s premiere of Adam Roberts’s new work The Giver of Light is a powerful success.
In his amazingly lush score, Roberts employs electronics, and the resources of his four singers, and four instrumentalists to create “two distinct musical spaces” that translate the life of the mystic poet Rumi into a “modern tale set somewhere in the Midwest.” His tale hinges on the emerging relationship between John (tenor Jonas Budris), who is a married, modern, liberal, white American version of Rumi, and Darren (baritone Brian Church), the man whose tragic life inspires John to abandon his perfect life to become an itinerant poet. Roberts’s distinct musical spaces are divided between the otherworldly electronics and non-traditional vocal techniques that depict the character’s inner lives and a busier, bustling rhythmic soundscape for the more mundane activities in the drama.
In general, the most interesting moments are those in which Roberts is employing or playing off convention. For example, instead of the expected parallel lines of sixths and thirds at the end of John and Darren’s meditation duet, we get overtone singing a due, subtly accompanied by electronics and performed with incredible intimacy by Budris and Church. This spiritual merging is complemented by the marvelous scenic design, in which, as the number progresses, Darren teaches John to read the writing on the wall; writing (in Sanskrit?) that, it seems, can only be seen by one who is in a state of enlightenment. Throughout the opera, Budris revealed his acting versatility through his character’s emotional tumults, and in the third scene aria, particularly, the light agility of his honeyed tenor stood out. For his part, Church’s stoic onstage presence and dry humor gave his character a complexity that might not otherwise have been evident.
The antagonist of the tale, John’s wife Elena, is played by soprano Aliana de la Guardia who is also the company’s general manager and perhaps the busiest soprano in Boston. She brought a fantastic performance to the most complicated character of the production. A stay at home mom and gossip, Elena’s assumptions and concerns about her husband’s relationship with Darren impel the tragedy. However, she is also humanized by the production in that the uncomfortable tension between John and Darren in their duet leads the audience to believe, as her character does, that this new relationship may just be sexual. Her second act aria is arresting, sung intelligently with an expressive yet amazingly agile voice, enhanced by the offstage and indecipherable whispering that seems to give voice to her doubts and fears.
Soprano Jennifer Ashe fills out the cast as John’s son Brian, whose place in the story is largely symbolic and without agency. Brian represents all that John prizes, all that he could lose in the tragedy and accordingly, he is the currency that Elena uses to manipulate her husband. In the final scene’s trio, Brian’s voice stands out most beautifully, but poignantly it goes almost completely unheard by the characters on stage. In her other role as Elena’s friend Susan, during their duet, the false innocence of her gossip is dark and comical at once. Indeed, the characters worked particularly well as an ensemble, and even more so as the non-individualized members of Roberts’s Greek chorus.
The only difficulty of the production is an apparent tension at the broadest level, between the libretto, stage design and direction. In his note, Roberts describes modern life as “…living in an age of sound bites and cool detachment in which we cultivate our identities through social media alone in our rooms.” This detachment is expressed in the production by the fact that a good amount of the mundane conversation takes place through two corded telephones on either side of the stage. The presence of the corded phones (and not cellphones or Ipads), the stay at home mom, and the Warhol/Lichtenstein influenced costumes and colors left one with the impression of an earlier era, turning the characters into an anachronistic set of conflicting clichés. After all, how could a modern middle-aged man who sells hybrid cars, recycles and practices yoga, wind up married to a stay at home mom who cooks dinner for her husband and stands by as he eats it, fetches a Fresca when told, and suffers from an extreme case of homophobia? It is Betty Draper meets Sting.
Like the singers, the instrumental ensemble in the production is first-rate. Mike Williams’s percussion is clean and measured without overwhelming the timbre. Indeed, the entire ensemble, including the electronics (Rudolf Rojahn), clarinets (Amy Advocat), cello (Javier Caballero) and saxophone (Kent O’Doherty) was most remarkable at the subtlest moments, from painting the mundane ringing of a phone to the stirring moment of a character’s most intimate transcendence.
In all, this opera is quite successful and makes for a powerful evening. Indeed, as one audience member exclaimed after the production: “Wow, that was heavy.” It rates high in Guerilla Opera’s growing list of important productions and, if it is representative, it bodes well for Roberts’s future dramatic endeavors. The production is being performed in the Zack box theater at Boston Conservatory through next weekend. Go see it before these Guerillas disappear back into the jungle.