by Steven Pisano
The composer Robert Ashley's opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is an interesting case as an opera because it was not conceived traditionally as a work of theater with music, to be presented live on a stage, but as a sonic production, to be presented as a recording. There are characters, yes. There is a story (of sorts), yes. But the beauty of the work--and the beauty is often quite extraordinary--is in the sound, particularly of the voices.
In the new production of this late 1980s work now playing at The Kitchen, produced by Mimi Johnson, Ashley's widow, the central defining voice is the smooth, sinewy instrument of Gelsey Bell, who has been a notable presence on the new music scene for many years. She is perfectly cast to deliver Linda's low-key West Coast-inflected torrent of words about her life. Bell has appeared in other Ashley works before, including the TV opera Perfect Lives (with the group Varispeed, which has championed Ashley's work on several fronts) and one of his last works, Crash.
In most ways, Improvement is more an enhanced concert than a staged opera. (The original recording is available on Spotify, but it is not as richly rewarding as this new live presentation.) Six performers (Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) sit at small black tables on different levels of an atmospheric set designed by David Moodey, microphones in front of them. Additionally, the voice of Robert Ashley himself (who died in 2014) is heard in a recording as The Narrator. At the back of the stage, jagged shapes indicate a mountain range. The lighting of these mountains change to indicate changes in place throughout the story.
The music, which was created by music director Tom Hamilton by combining old tapes of the original recording and mixing them with modern software versions of 30-year-old synthesizers, is more background than a leading force. What takes center stage are the voices, sometimes alone, sometimes in unison, sometimes overlapping each other. The singing is particularly rich when Gelsey Bell and Paul Pinto, as Linda's son named Junior, Jr., sing together.
There is a sing-song quality throughout the opera, which mimics the vernacular American "sound." It is not really singing, nor is it really just talking. It is something in between. It is often very funny in a deadpan way, tinged by the absurdity of the story.
Did I say "story"? The basic narrative is that Linda's husband Don decides to leave her one day for another woman, abandoning her at a scenic roadside turnoff. Linda then meets a man named Mr. Payne who rather suddenly proposes to marry her, but Linda (wisely) declines. She then moves to the "big city" and tries to establish a new life. It is an off-kilter and essentially banal litany of events, much like most people's lives--just like your life!. But Ashley's language is so rich (the power of the "lyrics" as poetry cannot be overpraised), and the presentation by these performers is so captivating, that you don't realize that you are listening to long digressions about being taught "left-handed" golf, or spending time in an all-night delicatessen, or talking in loops to a bureaucratic Airline Ticket Counter attendant, or the contents of Linda's purse.
All the time, there is a nagging reminder: At the start of the opera The Narrator tells us (and Robert Ashley has expressly stated in notes he wrote at the time of the original composition) that this opera, which is part of a larger work about Linda and a character named Eleanor, is actually an allegory about the expulsion of Jews in 1492 and leading up to mid-twentieth-century America. Huh? To me, the artistic value of Linda's journey stands on its own, despite, or perhaps because of her very ordinariness. The last thing she needs is the baggage of allegory.
In short, this is one of the best performances in New York right now. You should not miss it.