By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – Strange things were happening at LA Opera in 2015-16, but you had to look to find them. While the main stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion seemed mostly preoccupied with pumping up the box office – three of the seven productions were by Puccini, the others were Norma, The Magic Flute, and Pagliacci; Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick was the only unusual item – the company’s experimental bent asserted itself mostly in the black-box theater beneath Walt Disney Concert Hall known as REDCAT.
The latest entry in this area of edgy operas was the world premiere June 16 of anatomy theater from Bang on a Can co-founder and Yale-based pillar of today’s new music establishment David Lang who, as always, likes to spell his compositions in lower case. In addition to the music, Lang also co-wrote the libretto with Mark Dion, best known as a visual artist.
It is one of a growing number of operas that are trying to take productions off the usual stages and put them into the collective lap of its audience – in this case literally doing both. It is not for the squeamish, as it graphically depicts the confession, execution, and medical dissection of a physically abused 18th century woman named Sarah Osborne, who murdered her husband and two children.
anatomy theater is also short, as operas go, running about 74 minutes, total. Lang says that the maximum length of his works should be that of a single CD; if it were two CDs in length, audiences would only learn the first act but not the second! That’s a joke, son, but there is some shrewd logic in recognizing the shortened attention spans of the digital-age audiences that offbeat pieces like this are aimed at.
Director Bob McGrath, in league with Beth Morrison Projects, literally inserted us into the production as we walked into the REDCAT lobby. Young women in period costumes served us free beer in tin mugs and free meat or veggie sausages in buns as we gathered in front of a hangman’s noose in the REDCAT gallery. This was supposed to be a re-creation of the punitive carnival-like atmosphere of an 18th century public execution, though you could be sure that the conversations among the predominantly young black-clad hipsters in the crowd had little to do with discussing Christian morality.
The opera starts right there in the gallery with a ten-minute prologue in which Sarah – sung with luscious intensity by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell – lays out her rationale for her dastardly acts, at first a cappella and then with the backing of a five-piece band. Lang relies for a while on his usual plaintive pattern that I would liken to football’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running plays – short phrase, pause, short phrase, pause, etc. – but gradually becomes more linear and dramatic as the confession unfolds.
The execution was done, we were supposed to applaud with moralistic satisfaction, a limp Southwell was carried out, and during a break in the action, we were herded slowly to our assigned seats within REDCAT’s theatre. For the next 48 minutes of the main portion of the work, we were scholars and artists witnessing the dissection of the corpse where the purpose was to determine the sources of evil in various bodily organs – all based on surviving medical documents from the period. Various anatomical drawings and other images were projected on a scrim, the lighting vividly alternating attention upon the characters.
Southwell lay naked on a gurney as her body was presided over by the bombastic declamations of Baron Peel (the resonant bass-baritone Robert Osborne), and “dissected” by Ambrose Strang (the attractive musical-theatre-like tenor of Timur), with Joshua Crouch (Broadway baritone Marc Kudisch) serving as a kind of ringmaster. After more than a half-hour of lying perfectly still, the cadaver somehow seemed to stir and sing about her heart. There was plenty of blood, but less, really, than in the average production of Sweeney Todd.
If we were expected to come away with an explanation, however half-cocked, of which organs were responsible for the evil deeds of this woman, it didn’t happen, nor did any deep philosophical ruminations emerge. Some members of the audience giggled or laughed at certain anatomical references in the libretto, though this observer didn’t see anything particularly funny about anything. It was just a creepy, bizarre, macabre scene, offset by a fairly pleasing Lang score that contains his trademark minimalist elements yet has more of an absorbing, forward thrust than his other recent works.
Christopher Rountree and his nine-member ensemble wild Up played the score skillfully from a somewhat elevated perch behind the action. Southwell gave another demonstration as to why she has become one of the most fearless, versatile young singing actresses on the stage today. Everyone’s diction emerged crystal-clear over the REDCAT sound system, so there was no need to lament the lack of supertitles.
All of that said, I don’t think anatomy theater is something that you are meant to “enjoy,” per se. But it is a worthy attempt to make opera leap from the stage apron and involve its audiences.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.