Amped Up

Last week I caught the opening of New York City Opera’s “Monodramas and Modernism,” which featured three works: John Zorn’s La Machine de L’Etre, Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and Morton Feldman’s Neither, all directed by Michael Counts. These works were diverse in both style and scope—the Zorn clocks in at about ten minutes, the Schoenberg at over half an hour, and the Feldman at nearly twice that.

The operatic mode of singing—especially the role of vibrato—is an adaption that allows the singer to project her voice. It can be sublime and chilling to witness a solo voice come to fill a concert hall with its presence; and it is an amplification of the self and the spirit as well as a neat bit of technology. That’s one of the things that makes opera feel larger-than-life to me while all the amplified whispering of large arenas often leave me cold despite being more decibel-heavy.

Although I felt that Feldman’s work may have been the most deeply rewarding contribution, I was perhaps most curious about John Zorn’s contribution: a textless exploration of the voice-as-instrument with intentionally loosely-delineated staging directions. In some ways, I was disappointed that the work was not more of a tour-de-force for the singer, as so much seemed to hinge on this novel and fascinating decision. And juxtaposed with Schoenberg’s Erwartung, many of the harmonies and neo-Klangfarbenmelodie in Zorn’s orchestration did not strike me with the freshness of some of his chamber works that I really enjoy. But what was really exciting to me about La Machine de L’Etre is the way the work boldly jettisoned language (or rather verbal language) in favor of a less precise but more directly expressive musical language—almost as if harkening to the primitive creativity of speaking in tongues or psychedelicized glossolalia.

At one point, a cartoon word-bubble descended onto the stage, filled with projections inspired by Antonin Artaud drawings, and then explodes in a singularly wacky gesture. I am not sure if meaning (or anything) was “freed” in the course of ten minutes but I do think that Zorn’s achievement argues for further exploration. By chipping away at the huge and helpful mosaic of language that, sadly, often removes us from the direct perception of reality, I feel Zorn is helping to uncover and elucidate the musical meaning conveyed in sound that is our true birthright and the true source and predecessor of that verbal articulation known as “language”. Perhaps in pursuing such a course, opera will come to a deeper and more nuanced level of amplification—as far removed from popular literary and theatrical adaptations of much recent opera-fare as that tradition is from the crude, distorting warble of the PA speaker.

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