Emily Koh managed to thread the needle of relatable story and intense acting in her opera Her | alive.un.dead, which Guerilla Opera premiered this past weekend at the Pao Arts Center. The production told the powerful story of three generations of women in a family with excellent direction and creative scoring in a narrative that examines the fraught transition from immigration, to first- and second- generation American adjustments. Much of the opera takes place in the “In-Between,” a timeless, purgatory-like state in Chinese thought where souls can tie up loose ends from their previous lives before continuing in the cycle of rebirth. Here, two women, named HER1 and HER2, meet not knowing who the other is. By sharing their stories, they can reconcile their relationship before the cycle continues. Despite the weighty themes, we enjoyed an appropriate celebration of motherhood, femininity, and life around Mother’s Day.
Librettist and composer Emily Koh contextualized the story to the Asian-American experience, drawing on her background as a Singaporean-Chinese-Peranakan woman; however, she believes the story meditates on universal themes. She uses nondescript names and enigmatic titles with lots of punctuation to encompass other situations. Her libretto contained many poignant turns of phrase that beautifully encapsulated themes from the opera, any one of which could have been a subtitle for the show:
I have everything but nothing is mine
Reflections of yester-consciousness
Trapped in a life given to me.
While these themes are common to any coming-of-age story, the opera showed how they apply to people of any age who are trying to find their places in the world.
Koh used a spare texture of violin, cello, baritone saxophone and percussion (drum kit, vibraphone, gong, and just enough cow bell), and extensively employed extended techniques to imbue every setting with its own colorful soundscape. She gave each vignette in Scene 9, a montage of scenes from childhood, its own distinct texture, highlighting the progression from a carefree infancy to a traumatic adolescence. Scratch tone, extreme artificial harmonics, and vibraphone vibrato heralded the transitions to the misty In-Between. While Koh’s writing has many strengths, the greatest must be her sense of timing. She timed sequences so that the characters (and audience) experienced the pivotal moments of the opera at the speed of life. These moments often had several minutes without dialogue and the thinnest texture from the band, but they contained the greatest emotional power. Marie Yokoyama’s lighting design animated the amorphous ‘white box’ set from an indistinct setting that implied a hospital’s delivery room or the celestial In-Between into an enveloping embodiment of the cascade of emotions that the characters (and audience) experienced. An LED light bar ran at about waist height along the upstage wall, which was covered with picture frames. Projectors displayed various images in the picture frames, sometimes portraits of the family, sometimes primary colors to heighten the audience’s immersion in the story.
The Act 2 transition into the In-Between will forever be seared into my mind, as Sol Kim Bentley (HER1) seemed to move into a trance-like state before awakening in the afterlife. She didn’t speak and the only sounds were some dissonant cluster chords from the vibraphone, but her impactful facial expressions moved us through her journey out of this life and into something before the next. As she realized that she had left earth, she held her hand out into a beam of light as the picture frames behind her showed swirling clouds of mist. She played with the shadows this light cast, first from her head onto her left hand and more fully from her right hand onto her face. It was as though the substance of her body was being transformed, and she perfectly embodied the experience. A versatile actor, Bentley managed the role of HER1 with ease, whether she was singing, screaming, or speaking her lines. In the post-performance talk with the cast, she spoke about how she enjoyed playing into the various facets of HER1’s personality, and her body language in the performance highlighted the sometimes-sensual, sometimes-meek, always-strong virtues that HER1 embodies.
Rarely apart, Jeannette Lee and Jiayin Shi played off of each other’s energy well. Lee’s warm mezzo tone complimented Shi’s versatile baritone whether as MUM and DAD around the kitchen table, Two and One in the In-Between, or the Nurse and Doctor at the hospital. The small venue allowed us to appreciate the natural quality of their voices. At times, they projected strongly with full voice, such as the intense hospital scenes, while at other they sang sotto voce, as one would speak in a domestic setting. Seamless costume changes facilitated their character changes. Their blocking had a small degree of disembodied stylization, with sound effects (some electronic, some from the percussion) standing in for specific actions like knocking while they acted out a different though not unrelated action.
Nina Guo fully realized the complex and evolving character of HER2. Though her character seemed juvenile at times, Guo convincingly played the part without decadent exaggeration. Her lighter tone easily conveyee voice of the child while maintaining a superb operatic quality. Her lines of spoken dialogue didn’t feel out of place alongside the sung material as she maintained a steady inflection throughout. She empathically brought the audience through overdose in Scene 10 as the horror unfolded. Time felt as though it stopped as the excruciating and dreadful act propelled the story to its enrapturing conclusion.