Read New York Times Review for "DUST"!
Read New York Times Review for "CELESTIAL EXCURSIONS"!
Robert Ashley's three operas: Dust (1998), Celestial Excursions (2003) and Made out of Concrete (2007/2009)
All performaces at 8:00pm
Robert Ashley, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Tom Hamilton, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara
with Joan Jonas and "Blue"Gene Tyranny
Stage and Light Design:
Sound System Design:
Stories of the Streets, Resung Until They Are Right
By Alan Kozinn
New York Times
Robert Ashley’s recent operas are about transforming the mundane into the iconic, and whether they work for you probably depends on whether you believe that this alchemy is desirable, or even possible. These are works in which much is said but not a lot happens: Mr. Ashley’s characters tell stories. Most are true, or at least they are based on tales that Mr. Ashley has been told, or overheard. But some are fanciful or exaggerated. Others are barely coherent.
These operas, in other words, are stories about stories. And what could capture modern urban life better than that?
In “Dust,” the 1998 work that was revived on Thursday evening at La MaMa E.T.C., as the first in a trilogy of Mr. Ashley’s operas, the storytellers are five homeless people sprawled on benches in a littered park. The unnamed character whom Mr. Ashley portrays begins with a lengthy peroration on tale-spinning, in which he advises that “you have to tell a story many times to get it right.” And getting it right, he says, can mean adding, deleting and changing details.
Mr. Ashley’s companions have little in common, apart from having landed in the same park. A woman who was once a Shirley Temple look-alike (Jacqueline Humbert) reminisces colorfully and in gospel cadences about a man who spoke about theosophy, had greased-back hair, was a vegetarian and wanted to marry her sister. Another, Lucille (Joan La Barbara), talks about stumbling on two men making love in a park.
The Rug (Thomas Buckner), so named because he sleeps under one, and the Man in the Green Pants (Sam Ashley, who is Mr. Ashley’s son) offer sketchier, more burned-out monologues.
These are not arias in the conventional sense: mostly, the characters speak, each holding the spotlight in turn. But if Mr. Ashley devoted scant attention to melody, he was strikingly focused on rhythm. He also couched these pieces in counterpoint, of sorts: each speaker was accompanied, at a softer volume, by the rest of the cast, usually in closely matched rhythms, but with an alternative text. But during the Man in the Green Pants’s tale, the four other voices were arrayed in a complex pattern that suggested a full-fledged fugue.
In the second half of the 90-minute work, Mr. Ashley inched closer to conventional lyricism. Melody, as such, was still virtually (if not entirely) absent, but instead of free-verse narratives, the characters have rhymed, rhythmically uniform verses and refrains, each about different aspects of love and loneliness.
Mr. Ashley’s instrumental writing, played on electronic keyboards by (Blue) Gene Tyranny, draws on striking effects, including eerie glissandos, crunchy and sometimes tactile percussion sounds. But it does some slumming as well, lapsing into sparkly, bell-like New Age keyboard timbres that seemed at odds with the dark spirit of Mr. Ashley’s libretto.
layered dialogues on Effects of Old Age
by Steve Smith
New York Times
Music history is filled with candles that burned bright and fast. Some composers lived too short a life: Mozart and Schubert, Berg and Webern. Others stopped creating after a productive prime, like Rossini and Sibelius. But longevity can have its benefits for those who endure. Think of the extraordinary emotional insight and depth in Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff,” or the vibrant spirit and relative approachability in any number of recent works by Elliott Carter.
Robert Ashley has come into that company with his three latest operas, which are in rotation at La MaMa E.T.C. in the East Village. His idiom of sung-spoken electronic chamber opera remains as idiosyncratic as ever. But like Verdi in his final operas, Mr. Ashley, 78, has become deeply concerned with evoking recognizable human emotions with these latest works, and like Mr. Carter, he has proved willing to open doors by slightly softening a formidable style.
Thinking in terms of longevity is appropriate when considering “Celestial Excursions,” the second opera in Mr. Ashley’s current revival, which was restaged at La MaMa E.T.C. on Saturday night. Created in 2003 at the Hebbel-Theater Berlin and presented at the Kitchen in Chelsea that year, the opera deals with old age and its effects. Marginalization, loneliness, senility and the preservation of dignity are accounted for in a barrage of layered narrative strands and fragments, partly based on conversations Mr. Ashley had with elderly people in Arizona.
Mr. Ashley treats his unnamed characters — portrayed by Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner and Sam Ashley, his son — with respect and affection. At times he is among their number; elsewhere he is an interrogator in an assisted-living center, trying to impose order upon their wayward statements and impulses. Mr. Ashley does not disguise the unwitting humor in what his characters say, but the laughter here is born of recognition.
In Mr. Ashley’s abstract score, supervised by the sound designer Tom Hamilton, guitar twangs, electric-bass burps and jazzy keyboard figures (improvised by the pianist (Blue) Gene Tyranny) float and ricochet over moody electronic strains. The vocals, though more spoken than sung, frequently allude to the nostalgic strains of old pop songs.
For the current revival Mr. Ashley and David Moodey, who designed the lighting and sets, have streamlined the staging of “Celestial Excursions” to its benefit. Mr. Ashley and his vocalists still deliver their lines like newsreaders seated at tables. But (Blue) Gene Tyranny is no longer part of the scenery.
And the performance artist Joan Jonas, whose constant motion in the original production was distracting, appears in isolated interludes during the work’s final section. Through intentionally awkward actions and a gaze that shifts from commanding to imploring, she poignantly evokes an effortful cling to corporeality.