Monday, May 8, 2017

Tripping Out in Space

Philip Glass’s Madrigal Opera
National Sawdust
April 29, 2017

Philip Glass at 80
What is Philip Glass’s Madrigal Opera? Neither a madrigal nor an opera, the series of six pieces defies genre and classification. It is a non-narrative experiment in nonlinguistic communication. Rumor has it that Glass composed the piece in 1980 with an intentional ambiguity that would endow anyone who stages it with complete artistic license to make their own idiosyncratic sense out of it.

R. B. Schlather, auteur
The fact that R. B. Schlather was slated as the auteur behind it all this time around is actually what attracted me to it. The visionary behind those Handel operas staged at the White Box art gallery in the Lower East Side that featured open rehearsals for weeks on end in the lead up to the final performances, Schlather promises to inject new life into the art form. In fact, we’re looking forward to his contribution to the Opera Philadelphia Festival O17 in the fall where he will be directing a world premier at the mythic Barnes Foundation.

Which is why I was perhaps a little disappointed with the lack of even a gesture at narrative in his direction of Glass’s suggestive work. I was really hoping that the director would elevate the unusual minimalist work with at least a hint of something human, a jolt of something dynamic, a morsel of thought, an idea that might ground the ethereal repetitive piece in something relatable.

The spaceship known as National Sawdust
Instead, Schlather opted to up the ante on Glass’s minimalism with a heavy dose of – you guessed it – minimalism. The intimate rectangular spaceship-themed space at National Sawdust was arranged democratically. There was no stage, no front, no back. Chairs were scattered haphazardly around with no apparent rhyme or reason. Audience members could sit where they pleased. Singers and the single musician sat in reserved seats strewn throughout, which meant that you could potentially find yourself with a soprano singing at full belt right into your ear for the duration of the roughly hour-long piece.

Will Frampton on viola in the void
Photo credit: Caitlin Ochs
The effect was that of being immersed in the production of the musical experience. The sole instrumentalist (Johnny Gandelsman on the violin in the first portion, who was then substituted by Will Frampton on the viola in the second) sat in the center of the space facing no direction in particular.

So rather than step up to the plate with a creative theatrical interpretation, Schlather let the narrative, along with his performers, languish in chairs for the entirety of the trance-inducing droning on of Philip Glass’s majestic score. He went for atmospherics instead. We saw the show on the second of its two-night run. It was a beautiful Saturday evening. Though the trains were running with insane delays, we made it out to Williamsburg with the gloaming of the dusk. I was almost sad to go inside rather than soak up the air down by the river at sunset. But once inside, it turned out at that I needn’t have worried.

A live feed beamed the outside in from the roof
Photo credit: Caitlin Ochs
Schlather’s one directorial coup of genius was to bring the outside in. He arranged a livestream video projection of what seemed like a view from the rooftop of National Sawdust that covered almost the entirety of the two largest of the walls in the white box of a space – a live feed of the fading of the light on the buildings outside, including the new high-rise condominiums on the Williamsburg waterfront. It wasn’t a direct shot of the sunset, but the dying of the light was reflected and refracted on the facades of the buildings and the windows all around us, even though we were cooped up inside listening to Glass’s classic meditative drone. And oh, the random thoughts that dance across the landscape of the mind in that context, to sleep, if perchance to dream.

Johnny Gandelsman on violin in the center of the space
Photo credit: Caitlin Ochs
I have to admit, it was also pretty special to be granted the pleasure and the privilege of tripping out like that in the company of a small group of invested peers to a forced prolonged period of mild yet persistent aesthetic stimulation whose only aim was the negation of productive thought and the inception of dreamtime. Everyone in my section rose up at the end, without even applauding excessively, thoroughly refreshed, both spiritually and physically. Which is what the best Glass experiences can do to you. Einstein on the Beach left me forever changed and Satyagraha at the Met a couple of years ago moved me to metaphysical tears in a way that I had never experienced before or since.

– Lei & Lui

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