Opera Review: Dust
Robert Ashley wrote a trio of operas playing at La Mama E.T.C. Annex in New York this month, Dust, Celestial Excursions & Made Out of Concrete. "My characters are ordinary people," Ashley explains. "I am interested in their profoundly good qualities. They just happen to be ordinary people who are spiritually divine." These operas are staged in a new retrospective that will also feature performances by pioneer video artist/choreographer Joan Jonas and keyboard player “Blue” Gene Tyranny.Ryan Tracy of the New York Press doesn't feel Dust necessarily qualifies as opera, "I think I can resist conceding that Dust is an "opera" without diminishing the good that the work does do." He did very much enjoy the performance.
The music is fresh in its way, and big in scope. Ashley divides the piece using relatively conservative formal structures. In the first part, while each character is reminisces, the other performers chant in a delicate, Berlioz-like recitative. The effect is meditative, and your mind sort of weaves in and out between paying attention to the words and just being swept along the current of the chanting. New music icon Joan La Barbara's story about surprising two beefy gay dudes humping in a park was the only narrative I managed to follow from beginning to end.
A contrapuntal quintet is mesmerizing. Little phrases like "...stop the whole thing..." and "...they play these songs..." punctuate the phrases, while also pushing the music forward to the next place. As the attention of your ears is being pulled around from one performer to the next, your eyes follow in a delay. Jacqueline Humbert's comfortable and relaxed manner gets props.
The last major section is divided into four songs, each with a sad little hook ("Don't get your hopes up," "One more time," "It's easy," "There's nothing wrong with you") that sticks in your head, if only for having been repeated so many times. (Even as I write these words, the music comes instantly to mind.)
There was a mention of Celestial Excursions by Steve Smith of the New York Times, but it was less a review and more just a statement of what to expect. "Mr. Ashley’s abstract score, supervised by the sound designer Tom Hamilton, guitar twangs, electric-bass burps and jazzy keyboard figures (improvised by the pianist (Blue) Gene Tyranny) float and ricochet over moody electronic strains. The vocals, though more spoken than sung, frequently allude to the nostalgic strains of old pop songs."
No mention of Made Out of Concrete appears in the news. All three operas continue to play in repertory through this week La MaMa in the East Village.