Free-Form Operas Share Space With Met Museum Art

The London-based performing arts company ERRATICA offered 'La Celestina' at the Metropolitan Museum.  (Photo courtesy of ERRATICA)
The London-based performing arts company ERRATICA presented ‘La Celestina’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Photo courtesy of ERRATICA)
By Judith Malafronte

NEW YORK — Opera doesn’t need proscenium stages and all the fancy trimmings to have impact, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrated during a recent weekend in spaces usually filled with silence.

Qian Yi in 'Paradise Interrupted' at the Met Museum. (Stephanie Berger)
Qian Yi in ‘Paradise Interrupted’ at the Met Museum. (Stephanie Berger)

The London-based performing arts company ERRATICA presented La Celestina, described as “a video opera and immersive dramatic-musical experience,” in the museum’s Vélez Blanco Patio, an early Spanish Renaissance castle courtyard with colonnaded balconies and a wall of ornately framed windows. Not far away, the airy and spacious Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing was temporary home to excerpts from Paradise Interrupted, an installation opera by Huang Ruo and Jennifer Wen Ma.

The events were part of the fascinating installations and performance projects the venerable institution has been showcasing in its stated objective of exploring contemporary issues with imaginative use of its various galleries and spaces.

Paradise Interrupted, which will receive its full world premiere at the Spoleto Festival in May (for information, go here), was offered in a 40-minute version that was preceded on March 21 by a brief Q&A featuring composer Ruo and designer-director Wen Ma. They explained the work’s visual genesis, in contrast to the libretto-driven process of many operas, and the inspiration both creators drew from Chinese Kunqu opera star Qian Yi, who takes the central role in the work.

The story takes place in a garden and draws on elements of the biblical story of Adam and Eve and a traditional Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, in which a mysterious woman awakens. Psychological exploration, emotional longing, physical mutation, and dream-like fantasy are represented in Ruo’s slowly unfolding, hypnotic music, with traditional Chinese instruments joining a 14-piece Western chamber orchestra and four voices trained in Western classical tradition under John Kennedy’s excellent leadership.

The cast of 'Paradise Interrupted' at the Met's Temple of Dendur. (Berger)
The cast of ‘Paradise Interrupted’ at the Met’s Temple of Dendur. (Berger)

In a white gown with long chiffon sleeves and long black braids, Qian Yi’s delicate physicality embodied the questing, questioning heroine, inspired and led by the wind, and eventually disappointed at having no one with whom to share the delights of the garden. The silvery shimmer of Ruo’s bells and gently pulsing chord clusters characterized the first scene.

The second scene featured soaring vocal phrases, beautifully rendered by countertenor John Holiday, tenor Joseph Dennis, baritone Joo Won Kang, and bass-baritone Ao Li, providing a luminous texture captured by the resonant space of the glass-walled pavilion. The quartet’s black costumes, designed by Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, matched the cleverly constructed spiky serpent-hedges that emerged from the garden, all played in the large rectangular area between the Temple and its surrounding moat.  

I wonder how the static, image-dominated excerpts given here, however fascinating and dream-like, will fit into a full-length narrative work, and if dialogue and more direct encounters between characters, as in more traditional operatic works, will play a part.

During performances of La Celestina, written and directed by Patrick Eakin Young, artistic director of ERRATICA, with music composed by Matt Rogers, museum-goers wander in and out of the Vélez Blanco Patio, taking in the 25-minute installation in passing, while others stand or sit on the marble floor to experience the work in its entirety.

The story, published in 1499, centers on the love-struck Calisto, who hires an old witch called Celestina to procure for him the beautiful Melibea. Heard indirectly in narration and innuendo, the story unfolds visually in a similarly elusive shadow play, with a team from Manual Cinema using the wall of windows to see out as well as in, and to frame Hannah Wasileski’s hallucinatory images of the story’s love and deception, sex and death.

One of the tag-lines for La Celestina is “Opera Without Singers,” but the absence of live vocalists doesn’t mean the video piece is not permeated with vocalism, from plangent Judeo-Spanish folksong to Renaissance villancicos and the expressive lyricism of a viola da gamba, all reimagined sensually in Rogers’s richly textured musical fabric.

In Seamus Fogarty’s sound design, speakers placed around the courtyard bring lively and occasionally startling reality to individual voices, while Burke Brown has dramatically lit the courtyard’s statues to suggest their active participation. The use of Bracciano’s marble Orpheus, who holds a violin, is particularly striking. Between my two viewings of the show, I wandered around the space, and was amused to hear the sound of strings tuning up emerging from the speaker nearest him. The casual encounter with the sounds and images of the ancient story – at one point a little boy in a Superman costume breezed through the patio – does not diminish the power of ERRATICA’s story-telling.

'La Celestina' in the Met's Vélez Blanco Patio.
‘La Celestina’ in the Vélez Blanco Patio. (Courtesy of ERRATICA)

La Celestina runs daily from through March 29 during museum hours. It is free with museum admission. For information about museum performances, go here.

Judith Malafronte is a lecturer in Music at Yale University, and she writes for Opera News, EMAg, and other print and online outlets, while continuing a career as mezzo-soprano, continuo player, and vocal coach in the New York City area.