Opera (Un)Caged In Fluxus Fest’s Anarchic Opening

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A scene from ‘Europeras 1 & 2,’ a co-production of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Industry.
(Photos by Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES – John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 proved a soothing and diverting antidote to election day anxiety on Nov. 6. Both quasi operas – the first is 90 minutes, the second, 45 – made for a crowded, cacophonous, and densely textured spectacle, all done with good humor and a totally Marx Brothers-like anarchic style.

Many opera singers perform arias in the Cage work.

Directed by Yuval Sharon and a co-production of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his company, The Industry, Europeras 1 & 2 from 1987 represent the first full-size concert in the Philharmonic’s 2018-19 Fluxus Festival.

Cage, who died in 1992, was a major influence on Fluxus, an international anti-establishment collective in the 1960s and ’70s with strong roots in the Dada movement of the early 20th century. His Europeras (there are five altogether) amusingly convey an experimental, anti-art spirit that asks everything and nothing of spectators. Meaning may or may not come into focus.

Cage’s primary labor, which took him three years, was finding an organizing principle for Europeras. The singers’ arias and duets are heard in a random mass of short instrumental fragments drawn by chance from dozens of past European operas, ranging from Gluck to Puccini. At points selected by chance, the orchestra also vies with Truckera, a mix tape of 101 layered fragments from these operas, which drowns out both singers and orchestra.

Director Sharon mounts Cage’s ambitious burlesque of 19th-century European opera in the vast Soundstage 23 on the Sony Studios lot in Culver City, where the stadium seating facing the stage felt just right. It was like watching a raucous all-American football game, with the tattered football being old opera masterpieces.

The first five minutes of Cage’s work feel like you’ve blundered into a huge audition room. The members of the 28-piece LA Phil New Music Group, situated to the left and right of the stage, appear to be practicing individually. Singers – 19 of them, vocally covering a wide range – sound as if they are auditioning brief passages from famous arias.

That’s Europeras 1 & 2 in a nutshell, an intermittently amusing but overlong collage of musical fragments ornamented with outlandish and unrelated props and dancers who come on stage to gyrate briefly in whatever particular style moves them. Hand-painted backdrops (scenic design by John Iacovelli) roll down arbitrarily and, with an added touch of Old World charm, squeakily.

A whimsical moment from ‘Europeras 1 & 2.’

There’s even what appears to be a faux synopsis insert in the program book. One overheated passage reads: “Her brief rage of jealousy in the end sets sail. In a golden coach he commends her soul to heaven.” It’s a mischievous Fluxus gesture, since the Europeras have no plot.

Moreover, few arias or duets ever get close to completion or, for that matter, can even be heard over the din of competing musical lines and the distraction of whimsical bits of stage business. Cage’s Europeras are far from the ear-opening silence of his famous piano piece, 4’33, in which not a key is struck.

Regarding the costumes, everything from a Chinese warrior singing a Mozart aria to a mermaid or nun with a surfboard turn up. Sharon and costume designer Emma Kingsbury clearly had fun raiding Sony’s costume department, as well as the departments at Fox Studios and Warner Bros., among others.

One singer arrived on stage in a red “Tidwell” football jersey, referencing the film Jerry Maguire. Another singer, dressed as the hooligan Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, actually supplied a bit of Philharmonic promotion: “Stanley Kubrick’s Sound Odyssey,” featuring clips and live performances, is set for Nov. 23-25 in Disney Hall.

Clocks behind and to the side of the stage noted how much time had passed. At the hour mark in Europera 1, harsh lights from the stage glared onto the audience, as if to reassure us there would be only 30 more minutes before intermission. Indeed, part of Sharon’s challenge was finding ways to sustain interest in the work’s relentless simultaneity and repetitions, such as the recurring snatches of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” here performed on a tuba.

There are two remaining performances of Europeras 1 & 2 on Nov. 10 and 11, but be prepared for sophomoric jokes like the guy (in 2) taking his time sitting on a toilet while a soprano waits outside singing up the range as she becomes more uncomfortable waiting her turn for the bathroom.

At times, Cage’s Europeras felt like an intellectual’s Muzak, massaging opera fans who delight in spotting each aria or duet fragment, and providing enough movie references – Ghostface from the Scream horror series chases a singer off stage – for buffs.

Salome and the head of John the Baptist make an appearance.

Cage once spoke of “the enjoyment of things as they come, rather than as they are kept, or possessed or forced to be,” and that’s one way of watching his Europeras. He clearly labored over inventing structures that would frame all the fragments, allowing us to listen more carefully. But here, at such length, his aesthetic of unpredictability wore out its welcome by becoming predictable.

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Upcoming Fluxus Festival events include festival curator Christopher Rountree conducting the Philharmonic in Fluxus works staged throughout Disney Hall on Nov. 17, a concert billed as one of the orchestra’s most ambitious undertakings in its 100-year history.

Also at Disney Hall: A Feb. 15 “Fluxus Spotlight” concert features a Fluxus classic,1962’s Proposition #2: Make a Salad; and on March 22, “BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH” brings us the life and work of Yoko Ono, one of the more famous artists associated with the movement.

On Apr. 6, there’s violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s solo Fluxus performances at the Getty Museum; Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss, an excerpt from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro performed live as a twelve-hour loop at REDCAT on May 25; and, on June 1 in Disney Hall, David Lang’s crowd out, composed for 1,ooo voices.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

 

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