By Anne E. Johnson
BROOKLYN – While walking from the Atlantic Ave. subway station to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Oct. 12, I passed a Whole Foods, an Apple store, and countless chic hipster restaurants, not to mention the billion-dollar Barclays Center sports and entertainment arena. That very gentrification is the subject of Ted Hearne’s world premiere opera, Place, with a libretto co-written by veteran slam poet Saul Williams.
Both Hearne and Williams are former residents of the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where BAM is located, a neighborhood that is rapidly changing – some might say disappearing. Place, part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival and a co-production by BAM, the LA Phil, and Beth Morrison Projects, explores the effects of these changes.
First we hear the perspective of a 36-year-old white man, played by Steven Bradshaw in a Pink Floyd t-shirt and plaid flannel overshirt (costumes by Rachel Myers and E.B. Brooks). He’s in his own world, both mentally and physically, standing in a small set downstage center (scenic design by Tim Brown and Sanford Biggers). It’s the messy office of an upper-middle-class artistic type, a privileged recent Brooklyn resident who sings about his little son, admires his carefree sleep, worries about his future.
The man seems unaware of the outside world, here manifested by the larger stage set – scaffolding where a sign reading “Gentrify this!!!” hangs and several people of color wait and watch. Eventually they will have their say, but will anyone listen? “He does not know what the boundary is,” they complain in phrases shaped with R&B-like syncopation.
It’s more accurate to call Place a semi-staged oratorio than an opera, since its text is a series of contemplations and statements on the topic at hand, rather than a story. The first section of the libretto is by Hearne, and in fact represents him.
Director Patricia McGregor explained in program notes that she used a developmental technique she learned in her work with Anna Deavere Smith: She interviewed Hearne to help him jump-start the text. The movement called “The Interview” focuses on his difficulty expressing himself on this topic. McGregor’s question “Where do you feel most at home?” is displayed above the scaffolding (video by Brown). The sung reply includes Hearne’s stammering “um, so…” as he searched his mind for an answer.
Williams, whose work has always focused on the African-American experience, told the New York Times that he was skeptical about this project at first because “the world doesn’t need a white-male-centered perspective on gentrification.” But Hearne’s purpose in inviting Williams in was to let him have his say as a counter to his own viewpoint. In the second section of the libretto, Williams voices the pain of the dispossessed. “What about my son?” ask the black and brown parents. McGregor said that the people come down off the scaffolding for the second part to represent “the democratic chorus.”
The mostly Chicago-based six-member cast comprised artists from a range of musical backgrounds. Isaiah Robinson has rock and gospel chops, letting his voice soar to spectacular heights. Ayanna Woods proved herself as effective with spoken word as with singing. Josephine Lee made the audience take notice with her powerful declamation, and Sophia Byrd contributed a clear jazz soprano. Among the women, Miami Latin artist Sol Ruiz was the most startling presence, moving catlike around the stage while she sang with equal parts sarcastic humor and unbridled fury.
The various pop influences inherent in their styles made the singers of color contrast more sharply with Bradshaw, whose pure tenor was Peter Pears to Hearne’s Britten-like melodies for the white character. Everything is symbolism in this work: As the displaced residents speak out more loudly, the white man’s voice becomes distorted, with Bradshaw singing through a vocoder that multiplexed and compressed his sound. The message? Those who were there first are the “natural” residents – the proof is in their voices!
A casually dressed Hearne conducted his 18-piece onstage orchestra with exquisite sensitivity. The opera begins with that signature Hearne technique of interlacing and otherworldly phrases that constantly move and disappear. Imagine traveling in a spaceship past heavenly bodies that send out their signals, which are then lost, only to be replaced by the sounds of other planets and moons. However, the Place score solidifies as the anger builds, with movements drawing on soul, gospel, and rock alongside the classical contemporary vocabulary.
What stands out in the score is its fascinating spectrum of textures, from bowed string passages in rich triads to the robotic chords of the vocoder-treated voice, from the rumbling blat of Christa Van Alstine’s bass clarinet to the crunching and scraping of Diana Wade’s viola
Hearne uses stylistic and harmonic language as symbols, just as clearly as McGregor uses staging. In the number “New Faces,” for instance, Lee and Byrd sing a sweet duet at thirds apart that would suit the most tourist-friendly Broadway show. They’re rejoicing in all the exciting neighborhood changes (“And we got pop up shops / That give out water for free”). But once those who have been pushed out speak up, a dissonant, punk-inspired musical melee shatters those bright-eyed consonances.
Much of the writing for the people of color is homorhythmic as they respond to the white interloper, especially in the opening section by Hearne. They’re given individual numbers during Williams’ section, yet they can’t really be said to have individual voices. And that is the opera’s greatest weakness: The Brooklyn residents of color are not developed as specific characters, so it’s difficult for the audience to have nuanced emotional reactions about what’s happening to them. Intellectually, we understand that they’re angry and why, but we never get to see details of how gentrification affects individual lives.
And while the projections showed a time-lapse of the Barclay Center being built, there is nothing in the libretto specifying that the opera is about Fort Greene. The poems are so general and the rage so constant that it became numbing toward the end of the 75-minute work. Williams even takes the opportunity to bring up the disenfranchisement of Native Americans in movements with titles like “Beneath the ruins are older ruins” and “Colonizing space.”
Place is an intriguing attempt to grapple with unstoppable changes that are simultaneously destructive and constructive, hugely beneficial to some but life-shattering to others. It’s an overwhelming topic and a problem that no one seems to be able to solve. Angry chants and dissonant chords are probably a reasonable response.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.