Gallo, Ken Ueno’s challenging new chamber opera, was given six fully rendered performances by Boston’s Guerilla Opera under the direction of Sarah Meyer during the last two weeks of May at Boston Conservatory’s tiny Zack Box Theater. It was a rare combination of avant-garde and traditional, pop and hermeneutic. Days or weeks later audiences may still be wondering about the content, but most would probably agree this was one of the more exciting.
The opera’s main event is the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 set on a beach of Cheerios. A countertenor, starts out; dressed as the great castrati Farinelli, he morphs into a singing and dancing rooster, and ends up plucked naked like a supermarket fowl. The second singer, a soprano, plays a shopper, becoming a burlesque queen whose bra is dollar bills, and then, with the addition of an apron, transforms into a madona. The score is for cello, clarinets (including a rare Bohlen-Pierce), sax, percussion (including custom-built metallophone), and various taped and electronic sound elements. The audience tossed a beachball, flew a theoretical kite, and participated in a symbolic Cheerio chicken burial. Does it sound like a hoot, a royal cock-a-doodle-do? Well, yes and no.
The Tohoku tsunami devastated the east coast of Japan. Magnitude 9, it was the strongest earthquake on record for Japan: approximately 16,000 people were known killed with thousands missing; more than a million buildings were destroyed or damaged; three nuclear reactors in Fukushima blew up after their cooling systems failed and spewed radioactive fallout over the nearby fields and towns. The landscape was trashed, rearranged. Ueno, who spent several years as a child in nearby Sendai, was asked to write a piece commemorating the disaster. He posed the question of “Why?” After “seeking the consolation of philosophy,” he set his response to words and music.
The opera begins with the instrumentalists playing a passacaglia of ambiguous tonality. Countertenor Douglas Dodson sang offstage, his voice haunting in its unearthly beauty:
I have dreamed and have seen the future
The landscape of my youth mythic’ly wiped out
Who am I to question God…?
The words echo Voltaire, who wrote Candide as a parody of contemporary reactions to the great Lisbon earthquake of 1750. Ueno says the opera is fundamentally about ontology, the branch of philosophy which asks questions about the nature of being, the meaning of life. Leibniz among others held that calamities like the Lisbon earthquake were both meaningful and, invariably, manifestations of a greater good. Like Voltaire, Ueno takes on this position, but from a half-dozen different philosophical perspectives, including his own.
One of the questions ontology considers is “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and another is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” So why not have a chicken hold these fundamental questions up for interrogation? Ueno was also influenced by Beckett, and the setting does recall Godot and Endgame, with actors speaking from piles of trash. It also makes reference to the philosophical concept of absurdity. Humans are driven to find rational meaning for events which have no meaning in the sense that ontology implies. The search for meaning in something like the Tohoku disaster is fundamentally absurd. Who better than a countertenor in a chicken suit to make the point?
Before you stop reading, remember that The Magic Flute is about Freemasonry, and it is fun. As is Godot. Fortunately for the audience, Ueno similarly leavened the 12 scenes with comedic distractions. Scene 4 is a Rooster Ballet, a courtly dance where Dodson’s Farinelli occasionally loses control to his inner chicken. To this inspired madness Amy Advocat played a wonderful solo cadenza on her Bohlen-Pierce clarinet. In Scene 5 the instrumentalists dump soprano Aliana de la Guardia from a plastic coffin filled with Cheerios; thereafter she sings a shopping song set to a bump and grind. “Oh, Lord, give me a Mercedes Benz. I’m a landfill of desire, your plastic Nikki Benz .…” What is this supposed to mean? Who cares—I wanted an encore. In Scene 8, the Gallo returns to sing a “Chickenese” aria, its language sounding like chickens who spoke Latin. It too is fun, even if an assault on ontology.
Ueno is a frequent visitor to Boston, and anyone who has heard his music performed by BMOP and others knows when to take him seriously. Still, it is a tribute to the bravery of the Guerilla theater director and players that they saw Gallo’s potential and presented it with full-out enthusiasm and professionalism. For the singers it must have been a challenge to understand some of the passages, not to mention memorize the seemingly nonsense words and syllables. Cellist Nicole Cariglia was asked to bow with a technique Ueno calls “dij” (because it sounds like a didgeridoo) and to provide an ongoing feathery, rasping accompaniment with lateral bowing. Saxophonist Kent O’Doherty provided similar background by breathing an extended line through his instrument. Ueno designed a custom metallophone (played by Mike Williams, percussionist and artistic director) to accompany La Guardia’s final lullaby in microtones approximating her singing. Brilliance here; brilliance.
The wonder of it all: there is more to Gallo than inspired weirdness. One wished for a more coherent narrative arc from beginning to end, and wished that more of the text, a rich pudding of puns and plums, was easier to follow, yet Gallo was ultimately compelling in conception and performance. Nature will serve us with more disasters; “the present-day composer refuses to die.”