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"You Us We All" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano


(All photographs by Steven Pisano.)

Shara Worden has done it again. Best known as the lead singer of My Brightest Diamond, Worden brought her new faux opera You Us We All last weekend to the BAM Harvey Theater. Based on the frivolous court masques of the seventeenth-century, You Us We All fuses ideals from the Baroque and the modern day, in a way that's both varied and eccentric.

The opera, which was directed by Andrew Ondrejcak, showed its quirky face from the time upon one’s entrance into the theater -- its narrative does not “begin,” but instead gives the feeling that it's already been happening and is only continuing for an audience to participate in. Its set is modest, having only a fairly vacant (but shiny) stage with lucite chairs placed in a disheveled manner, a screen with the words “Thee” and “Nd.” written on it, and a man in his underwear and a white ruff laying face down on the ground. (He is "Time", a humorous drunkard played by Carlos Soto.) Its futuristic appearance, characterized by a multitude of images on a display which resembled a Mac computer monitor, gives no hint to a specific location -- instead presenting the illusion of a place in which no time or space passes. Thus, location is less specific than metaphysical, a "place" in which all human emotion is centralized.

The five performers were meant to embody five ideals: Love (Martin Gerke), Death (Bernhard Landauer), Hope (Worden), Virtue (Helga Davis), and Time (Carlos Soto). But the names were mostly arbitrary. The songs each sang did little to illustrate his or her nature. The great delight of the show was Ms. Worden herself: her voice is a glorious and supple instrument that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain like an intravenous blast of endorphins.  When she sang a series of coyly couched songs to pop icons such as Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Mariah Carey—eliciting simultaneous smiles and groans from the audience—there was nothing to be got from them, except mild amusement.


At times truly theatrical, at other times vague and forced, the songs sought to be comical and topical, but sometimes seemed without direction or purpose. Martin Gerke was excellent as Love, especially on the haunting song “Destruction,” with its rolling organ intro and Sondheim-influenced vocals, which deserves a life beyond this show. “Loverfox” sung by the countertenor Bernhard Landauer was a deeply perverse and brilliant theater song which also, if used in an opera with a story, would be chillingly remembered by an audience.  “Love/Poof” was a buoyant ensemble song about the passing pleasures of the heart, while “A Survey of Human History,” was an appropriately clever summation of the world’s past even as the single cell known as Andrew (Ondrejcak) considers an uncertain future. But there also were too many strained songs like “Poolside in LA,” discussing mojitos and lap dances, and “At the Gym” discussing armpits, which lyrically were utterly sophomoric. 


The music was superbly performed by B.O.X. (Baroque Orchestration X), which played mostly period instruments—a harpsichord, a theorbo (a long bass lute)— a drum kit and a magically old-fashioned manual typewriter, (played by Mattijs Vanderleen) which was used to great effect in the epistolary songs to the pop stars (in particular the song addressed to the Olson twins).

Judging by Ms. Worden’s personality in interviews and method of approaching music, I can say that You Us We All truly exemplifies her place as both an operatic composer and a contemporary musician -- two fields in which she is extremely well versed. “You Us We All” created an environment that I hope other contemporary pieces will follow in suit. It successfully joined together two worlds that would never be thought of as synonymous in any sense of the word; however, they might be closer than we think. 


More photos can be found here.