The first four words that came into this audience member's mind last night at the not un-glitch free dress rehearsal for Alex Waterman's production of the opera, Las Vidas Perfectas, were, in this order: elegant, beautiful, lush, exciting. This production is exciting in the way that opera can be exciting, though it does not include elephants.
It's a complex piece, this Robert Ashley opera, Perfect Lives, composed back in the 1970's, one of the outstanding examples of what was then called New Music. An enormous amount of hard work, intellectual, creative, and woodshedding, has gone into this production, and it shows by not showing any of the seams or the effort.
We are provided layers upon layers of sound, none of them the same, none of them fighting each other, but all of them individual, retaining their own integrity, not dissolving into a sonic mud. Elio Villafranca's brilliant piano music is between Peter Gordon's gorgeous, deep tracks, and the vocal music produced by el V -- 90 minutes of him chanting, singing, talking, emoting Ashley's text, his own body providing kinetic visul accompaniment, that is kept within strict geometric bounds. Another current of music that winds through the other layers is provided by the vocals of el coro, Elisa Santiago and Abraham Gomez-Delgado. One way to describe what Ned does is a vocal equivalent of the dressage exercise of volte – changing the horse’s (Ashley’s words) lead and gait on a dime via hand and heel aids, as the animal’s direction catapaults left, now above, now below, around, between and around the other musical layers. Another way to describe it is as vocal slalom skiing, an alpine discipline, involving skiing between poles (gates) spaced close together. This is complex geometric grid -- one that is a part of composer Ashley's original template of composition. Elio's music also exists in a space that is next to El V's music, as well as between El V's and Peter's. This is a complex geometric grid -- one that is a part of composer Ashley's original template of composition.
Sarah Crown, the set designer, whose own art expresses a passionate engagement with geometry, created the visual interpretation of this work. There are many geometries in this opera, which is first symbolized by a vibrant colored neon rune of intersecting angles and lines that hangs above stage right. The vari-colored backdrop design is a fabric patchwork of geometries. Center stage is the curves of Elio's grand piano. The bed and decor of stage left are combination of angles and curves. The colors and geometries are echoed in the costumes of the two singers of el coro, one male, one female. Occasionally supertitles in English are projected upon the rectangular blank spaces of the stage risers and platforms, and upon the curved surfaces of the piano's case and sound board. The convexity of these shapes distorts the words into softer curves themselves. The stage design illustrates the geometries of the composition, harmonizing with the build-up of the musical layers, providing sensual pleasure for the eye, and interest to the mind. It is sharp, clear, plain, while vibrantly colorful.
The space of the Irongate Theater is one of those fine stone churches from 19th century Brooklyn, deconsecrated. The acoustics are splendid, the seating comfortable. A lot of friends turned out to provide an audience of other peformers of the piece (Ashley's work in general and Perfect Lives in particular is currently being re-staged and performed), musicians, music writers, music lovers, fashion designers, photographers and other artists and critical writers. Their feedback before tonight's opening is valuable and appreciated.
Whew -- the first three performances are really upon us now, after four months of work. There are more in the future, and not so far away. This is after all, too, only the first three episodes of the seven episodes that make up the whole of Perfect Lives - Las Vidas Perfectas.