Dreading possible audience involvement in the graphic mayhem that sometimes characterizes street-theater-savvy Guerilla Opera productions (see Heart of a Dog review here, with bloody aprons and Aliana de la Guardia in whiteface, as in the current production), I thought WTF, how about Bud instead of pinot grigio for preprandial imbibing? Surprised instead was I to discover stately, untroubled lyricism from the nine-year-old company’s Zack Box (BoCo) production of Troubled Water by Mischa Salkind-Pearl.
This 70-minute opera, with three singers and four instrumentalists, focuses on late-19th-century Japanese author Higuchi Natsuko’s (Ichiyou) life and writings. “Considered the first female writer of the Japanese modern era, Higuchi was educated in classical writing traditions, and these influences became significant aspects of her work.” The opera weaves seven tableaux over two acts around her introspective stories.
Higuchi appears in the person of mezzo Sophie Michaux as she arrives at the studio of pulp fiction writer Nakarai/Nobu/Tomonosuke/Kichizou, as impersonated by baritone Brian Church. A naïve supplicant at first, she hands writings to her mentor and stands in the background as they come alive with didactic interactions between the mentor and his geisha. More and more Higuchi enters into the ménage, until at the end she can take no more of this decadence and shadow play.
Salkind-Pearl’s musical language is at once lyrical and modern—and always ingratiating. With limited forces he manages to channel Toru Takemitsu and Leonard Bernstein in his own voice. Mike Williams’s gongs, blocks, sleighbells, bass drum, and marimba pungently evoked the East. Violinist Lilit Hartunian gave voice to Natsuko’s internal turmoil with Paganiniesque virtuosity. Kent O’Dougherty’s saxophones provided a visceral pulse and well-inflected colors. From Amy Advocat’s clarinets came almost human plaintiveness.
The vocal writing demanded a continuous spectrum from speech through sprechstimme through crooning all the way to real operatic projection. The singers were rarely required to negotiate awkward, modernist leaps, although in the memorably tuneful “Make Our Garden Grow-ish” aria and duet, they did have to execute unusual harmonies in seconds and diminished sevenths (or so it seemed). The actual text was something like “A broken sandal in the rain / We used to be friends / Everything changes / Everything ends.” Or was it “My love is like a bridge?” I couldn’t scribble in the dark. All three singers possess clear and pleasant instruments, which seemingly pleased the composer, who sat next to this writer at the press preview.
Entirely in command vocally, Church seemed nevertheless miscast and unable to summon much emotion, even in those rare moments the score demanded it. De la Guardia did not quite convince one that she was a high-priced geisha, but her singing had variety and her character developed. Michaux remained a restrained seeker until her final departure into a glittery red backdrop, a strange depiction of Higuchi’s tubercular isolation at home. We wondered if we were seeing a ritual suicide and heavenly ascension.
Allegra Libonati set the stage with mimimal props and trapezoidally hung scrims (although the front scrim also did service as a jump-rope, a cape and a shroud) which served mostly as recipients of Daniel Chapman’s elegant projections. It must be said that more than anything else about the production, his painting with light established the locus of the action. In particular Chapman’s moving-brush calligraphy, reminiscent of the “Du mußt Caligari werden! (You must become Caligari!)” text that writes itself on the sky at the conclusion of the German Expressionist silent, displayed a polish well beyond the economical qualities of the staging. Apparently great study went into the directions and thicknesses of the brushstrokes slashing across the drops. Julia Noulin-Merat’s lighting lacked a sufficient number of instruments either to make the faces visible or to establish mood. Costuming the male writer in pantaloons and bowler hat may have been period correct, but it was awkwardly inhabited, on the other hand Neil Fortin’s multiple costumes for the geisha invariably added some wanted color. The removal of the players’ outer costume layers at the self-revelation scene toward the end seemed to catch their emotions well.
It is said that Higuchi’s poetry does not translate well, and perhaps that is why singers were freighted with such lines such “I should give you a piece of my mind” and “What a fool I was!” “Blind! Oh, but now I see clearly.” “You never were a serious writer. You hardly even own any books.”
On the other hand, we could understand only about half of Frederick Choi’s lyrics, which may have been fortunate, because there were a lot of words.
To get an idea how overly literary the show feels, consider this synopsis of the first of the seven scenes. There’s no way this level of detail could be conveyed in singing and action, and these are just 116 of the libretto’s 4638 words.
In Act One Higuchi meets the Nakarai Tosui, famous author of lowbrow novels. She approaches him for help in launching a writing career; he agrees, and they enter into a dependent professional relationship tinged with romantic tension. Higuchi does not yet sense the ways in which her gender defines her future, nor how a dependence on men will inhibit her. Scenes from her stories ‘Child’s Play’ and Troubled Waters illuminate the societal pressures felt by so many during the era of the Meiji reformations. Midori, unknowingly destined for a life as a courtesan, and Nobu, a monk-in-training, cannot reconcile their feelings for each other with the social demands placed on them by their inevitable careers.
And yet. The seven short scenes accumulated to not insignificant effect, even if conveying few specifics of place. Perhaps that allowed us to project our own emotions and interpretations onto the confusing proceedings. And for some, real tears flowed at the end of this audience-friendly offering. If it is produced again, a bigger budget, allowing for more differentiation among scenes, would help visually. More-sophisticated Kabuki choreography and Asian mannerisms seem wanted as well. And unless they are as elegant as Nils Asther, I have some reservations about Westerners playing Asians in shows where details of gesture and ritual are so important. Finally, less reliance on words might allow the music and the emotions to bloom.