Aquanetta – Shocking Opera

(blog post written in January 2018)

Aquanetta, produced by Beth Morrison Projects and written by composer Michael Gordon, was the first performance included in the New Works Forum at Opera America (January 2018). We trekked to Brooklyn for the groundbreaking Prototype Festival. The sold out performance took place in a warehouse turned multimedia theatre.

Wow! This performance is easily the most memorable musical event I have attended in the last year (even superseding the Katy Perry concert I enjoyed with my daughter).  This opera/production was abrasive, loud, confounding, and shocking (the big reveal “fucked with my head” stated a friend). It was also awesome and ultimately I loved it. A colleague, CU Eklund Opera Director Leigh Holman, and I shared a car back to midtown and continued to talk in the hotel bar. We spent three hours digesting this experience and I think we may yet have a few more conversations about this piece. Certainly our future conversations and activity regarding CU NOW (New Opera Workshop) will always hold a special place for unexpected Aquanetta references and inside jokes. This show inspired Leigh to compose two micro-movies just for our mutual amusement. We are bonded for life because of Aquanetta!

Spoiler Alert: I will now openly discuss this production/opera. This 70-minute work offers monumental production challenges and will rarely get performed with the herculean efforts embodied in this particular performance. Sadly, few people outside of the Prototype Festival will get to experience this production. So, my spoilers will not be as sinful as discussing the plot for the latest Star Wars movie.

First, the production included the following: nine characters dressed in gorilla costumes performing tick-tock choreography with their feet, a mad scientist with a nine-inch morphine needle, the quintessential B-movie ditsy blonde nurse, a mass murder, a 10-minute opening scene featuring a 15′ high video of a black and white eye (think massive extreme close-up), excessive blood, a camera assistant who spent the entire show pushing around a human size lazy susan, and the most complicated sound reinforcement/amplification problems I’ve ever witnessed in live theatre. Then there was the fact that I completely missed a sizeable secret room that sat on the stage in plain sight the entire opera. This room usually held the majority of the cast. When revealed, I had the biggest WTF moment.

I had arrived in NY at 3AM that morning due to weather delays and spent the morning trying to catch up with life. The afternoon was spent attending the packed New Works Forum hosted by Opera America. I did not have a moment to read what we were seeing that evening and did not even realize the piece was by Michael Gordon (a favorite composer). Upon arriving at the theatre I immediately engaged my neighbor in conversation and failed to read the one-line synopsis that would have explained almost everything about the story. I knew nothing, NOTHING, about this opera and had the magical or exasperating experience of trying to piece it all together on the fly.

The majority of the opera took place in HD black and white on a 15′ projection screen just off center. The image was beautiful with a narrow focal field and high contrast. State of the art camera and projection equipment created compelling images. The music was loud, dissonant, driving with repetition, and featured guitar, violin, cello, keyboard, and bass. I am a fan of Michael Gordon’s music and have created several running Spotify playlists. For my taste, the music was strong and combined with the beautiful images to create a riveting experience. That is a good thing because I hardly understood any of the words (printed in a program – which no one could read in the dark), and had no idea what was happening in the story. Gradually archetypal characters showed up and were involved in some undecipherable story that whirled around like a merry-go-round.

The main character seemed to be a victim about to undergo terrible and experimental surgery by a mad scientist and his sexy assistants. Gorillas were there too! Eventually something happened off screen and the main character murdered everybody, EVERYBODY. She was no longer so innocent.

Here is the catch, the entire time the action happened on the screen and most of the audience had the impression we were watching pre-recorded material. I thought it was a highly edited bit of video and audio production. Occasionally a live character would show up on stage but mostly we watched the screen and heard the music through good speakers. The live performers hardly seemed necessary and I cynically thought their presence a pitiful justification for this performance to happen live. I kept wondering “why am I not watching this in my home movie theatre reclining on the couch with pajamas and popcorn?” This was a video opera and my growing irritation did not see a reason for all of us to be there.

Towards the very end it was revealed that all of this insane video and audio magic were actually happening live – every bit was created by live performers. And how it was created exceeded my imagination in spectacular fashion. It was a production feat worth writing numerous blog posts about. My mind was blown. I could not fathom the amount of choreography, technical difficulties, and directorial imagination required to pull this off. Staggering.

Question: how does a major reveal balance out 60-minutes of a packed audience watching what they believed to be a film? Does this fact that it was live all along change the fact that we  watched a screen most of the time? I don’t know. I do know that Leigh and I could not stop talking about the opera and I’m still thinking about it days later.

Turns out the one line synopsis I failed to read explained much: “In the new opera Acquanetta, the spirit of 1940s horror movies is turned inside out in a bravura, one-act deconstruction of the genre that explores how the camera can shape perception and identity.” I can’t imagine how much that knowledge would have changed my experience. I would have interpreted every camera angle and bit of information revealed on screen as some clue to the action. And all of the zany archetypal characters would have been expected rather than a delightful mystery. I would have been “in” on much of the craziness the entire time and my mind might have sat in analytical or smugly critical mode throughout. I’m glad I went in without any knowledge of the piece.

I enjoyed the evening and hope my comments do not communicate a negative review. I loved the music, production, sound, performance, and projected images. The ingenuity was staggering and I will never forget this performance. Certainly a theatre piece that can generate this much continued thought for an audience must be a huge success. Is a lot of that success the gimmick of the big “reveal”? Now that I am at the end of transcribing my thoughts I don’t much care if it was a gimmick or not. I am changed for having attended. It was simply a spectacular theatrical experience and made a great trip to NY more special. Thank you Michael Gordon, BMP, Deborah Artman, Daniel Fish, and Daniela Candillari!

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