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Robert Ashley's "Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)" at The Kitchen

by Steven Pisano

20190209-DSC01732(All photos 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.

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"Greek" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano

20181204-DSC02063(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Mark-Anthony Turnage made his mark in London almost 20 years ago with his second opera, which was based on the Sean O'Casey play about Word War I, The Silver Tassie. He came more immediately to the attention of New York opera lovers five years ago with the splashy and sensationalistic Anna Nicole, based on the colorful true story of Anna Nicole Smith.

But Turnage's first opera, Greek, based on Steven Berkoff's play of the same name (which itself was based on the Sophocles drama) has never been seen in New York. Until now. The production now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival (with one cast change) is the same Scottish Opera production that played earlier this year in Glasgow, and before that at the Edinburgh Festival, to glowing reviews.

It is always interesting to see the early work of artists who have gone on to produce larger and more mature works, and Greek is no exception. Written in 1988 during the years of Margaret Thatcher's tumultuous governance in Britain, there is a strong political undercurrent to the story, and thirty years on, none of it sounds dated in today's tedentious political climate.

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"The Good Swimmer" at BAM Fisher

by Steven Pisano

"The Good Swimmer" at BAM Fisher(All photos by Steven Pisano)

Back in 2008, Heidi Rodewald was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her musical "Passing Strange," which was eventually turned into a film by Spike Lee. She has collaborated many times with singer/songwriter Stew. Writer Donna Di Novelli is known for her fascination with "found text" as the basis for her lyrics written for various music-theater projects.

Together, Rodewald and Novelli have written the new song cycle "The Good Swimmer," which is currently playing at BAM Fisher through Saturday as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival. First seen as a sneak peek back in 2016 at the Prototype Festival, "The Good Swimmer" isn't a work of theater per se. There is a band on stage throughout (including Rodewald on electric bass) that includes electric guitars, drums, keyboards, cello, trumpet, and violin. On a scrim above the band, there are projections and videos, including images from old lifeguard manuals and the roiling ocean. Throughout, a group of seven lifeguards move around behind the band and occasionally gather into tableaus, without directly conveying the lyrics being sung.

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"Dragus Maximus" by Heartbeat Opera at Roulette

by Steven Pisano

20181026-DSC01337(All photos by Steven Pisano)

Each fall, to kick off its season, the edgy Heartbeat Opera presents a combination drag and opera extravaganza, which also serves as a fundraiser. This year's production over the weekend at Roulette was called "Dragus Maximus: A Homersexual Opera Odyssey," directed by co-artistic director Ethan Heard and conceived with co-artistic director Louisa Proske.

Drae Campbell was Homer, who was the narrator for the evening. Peregrine Teng Heard (Ethan's sister) was the voiceover of Aphrodite, goddess of love, who guided and prodded Homer on his adventures encountering various mythological beings, each of whom sang an aria from an opera with some kind of connection to the action. Later in the show, Aphrodite was personified on stage by Wo Chan (also known as the drag performer Pearl Harbor).

John Taylor Ward, who starred in Heartbeat's production last year of Mozart's Don Giovanni, sang "Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori" from Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, dressed as the blinded Polyphemus. Dressed up as a life-sized house fly, Ward also paired with Jamilyn Manning-White, as Eurydice, in the "Fly Duet" from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

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