At New York City Opera, Three Far-From-Monotonous Monodramas

Email a Friend

Earlier today, the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb fired off an Arts & Leisure missive in The New York Times about his company’s oft-debated HD initiative and the struggles that an opera company faces when it comes to making the art form “as fresh and appealing to today’s opera audience as ‘The King’s Speech’ or ‘The Social Network’ are to moviegoers or ‘Arcadia’ is for theatergoers.”

Meanwhile next door, New York City Opera was busy doing just that, without the aid of high-def cameras, in Monodramas—a triple-bill of one-act operas by John Zorn, Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. What happened behind the closed doors of the David H. Koch Theater Friday night did not extend anywhere beyond the house. We can’t help but wonder if the experience would have been as momentous had it been presented with a global audience in mind.

Upon assuming the post at New York City Opera two years ago, general manager and artistic director George Steel (who made Columbia University’s Miller Theatre the world-class and forward-thinking venue it is today) made it his mission to nudge the troubled company forward, take it out of the Met’s shadow and re-instill in it a commitment to innovation that has been part of the company’s 68 years of operation. How profoundly that mission resonated Friday night when a flood of young audiences amassed in the Koch—so many that the curtain was delayed by nearly a half hour to accommodate seating. Surprisingly, the first of the Monodramas—John Zorn’s La Machine de l’être in its world stage premiere—started not with a bang, but with an extended moment of silence, punctuated only by the odd mobile phone in the audience.

Director Michael Counts gave the eye plenty to contend with, most potently in La machine. Based on a drawing by the surrealist French writer and director Antonin Artaud, it’s a veritable orgy of sight and sound. While Finnish soprano Anu Komsi (a highlight of Lincoln Center’s 2010 Varèse festival) scaled the craggy vocal lines of this ten-minute sock in the jaw, design firm Beehive delved into the maddening visual world of Artaud, culminating with a finale that is, almost literally, eye-melting.

Following a striking entr’acte scored by video artist Jennifer Steinkamp, formidable soprano Kara Shay Thomson gave a performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung that was flush with imagery and dramatic heft and light on the chewier notoriety that 12-tone music has gained. Like its other counterparts in the triple-bill, Erwartung makes use of a pedigreed ensemble of silent actors who trade in the burkhas of La machine for the stark white dresses and identical wigs that mirror the unnamed protagonist of Schoenberg’s taut psychological drama. These mirrored images visually amplify the unknowns of the dreamlike, Freudian piece.

Things took a prismatic turn in Morton Feldman’s meditative and moody Neither, seen for the first time on stage in the U.S. The brief libretto, written by Samuel Beckett, was expertly delivered by soprano Cyndia Sieden (last seen at City Opera as the title role in Handel’s Partenope). NYCO music director George Manahan, who recently added directorship of the American Composers Orchestra to his resume, led his musicians through a ravishing three pieces—his extended work in the contemporary realm this season has served him well for this purpose. Appropriately, he and his three leading ladies were met with a resounding ovation at the end of the wild ride. If "a gripping dramatic portrayal is now considered an essential part of a successful opera performance,” as James Levine has said, then Komsi, Thomson and Sieden all exemplify this ideal—and they delivered the goods effortlessly and hypnotically.

The integration of visuals in Monodramas are just as important to the piece as its the musicality. Counts gives nothing away upfront—in fact, by the end not everything is fully explained. From the pre-show tuxedoed man and woman standing in front of the Koch’s curtain to the suspended prisms in Neither, each component unfolds with the grace, method and precision of a sleek golden key turning a finely-crafted lock. Unwilling to let the night end, most of the audience members buzzed post-performance in the lobby until asked to leave. More like this, please, City Opera. More like this.

Below: Jim Jarmusch reading the libretto to Neither: