Singspiel ("Song-play") - a style of opera that combines music with spoken text - has been around for nearly three centuries. Think: Mozart's Magic Flute and Beethoven's Fidelio. Singspiel is designed to put the text on an even plane with the music, making it clear and comprehensible to the listener.
But, in Robert Ashley's Made Out of Concrete (2007), which opened last night at La MaMa E.T.C., characters speak over each other, or cut themselves off mid-sentence. Or, they spin off into unusually long soliloquies, relating stories that are at turns both amusing and disturbing. Electronic music, projected from amplifiers above the stage, hovers like a thin, atmospheric shroud. The experience is as frustrating - and captivating - as a Samuel Beckett play.
As opposed to Ashley's other operas, Concrete has no vocal score, forcing him to rely on the abilities of four performers he's worked with closely over the past three decades: Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, and his son, Sam Ashley. With the libretto taped into oversized playing cards held like poker hands, each "singer" improvised in his/her own unique style full of unusual cadences, their voices occasionally distorted through electronic processing (courtesy of Ashley's longtime sound designer Tom Hamilton.) Ashley, 78, was himself present onstage throughout, delivering his lines with poetic diction from an easy chair at the rear.
Made Out of Concrete marks Ashley's 14th foray into the world of opera, and while its charms might be lost on those more accustomed to uptown fare, his dreamlike soundscapes will haunt you long after you leave the theater. Which is what all great art is supposed to do.
Concrete will continue at La MaMa E.T.C. through Saturday, in rotation with Ashley's other recent operas Dust (1998) and Celestial Excursions (2003). Tickets available at the box office or online.