What did you do last night? Oh, I just went to another world premiere at Carolina Performing Arts. Didn’t you do that a week or so ago? Yes, this was another one. It was a multi-art performance bold in concept, cinematic in scope, and stunning in execution. Oh, and the music…the music was ferocious. It was a CelloOpera. A what? A CelloOpera, ELSEWHERE. It took me there, and I’m not back yet.
What makes an opera? It must have music, big music, but it must also have words, passion, imagery, and movement—and they must interlock, and each must be necessary to the others. For an opera that matters, artistically speaking, the totality of the thing must be all the audience can bear. “Cello goddess” Maya Beiser and experienced stage director Robert Woodruff have made such an opera. Melding live and recorded music and song with live and projected movement in a set consisting of a white scrim room with five cots behind a dark, churned earthy field, Elsewhere engages the intellect, the senses, and a range of emotions not generally set loose in grand opera. From the moment it began, when Beiser entered the scrim room to take up her waiting cello, until the house lights came up 70 minutes later, there was nothing but Elsewhere anywhere, but we experienced it in many ways at once.
Multiple viewpoints must come naturally to Beiser. Her mother is French, her father Argentine. She was raised on an Israeli kibbutz, then graduated from the Yale School of Music. Based in New York, she performs internationally, often collaborating with adventurous composers, musicians, and other artists. She was an early member of the Bang on a Can new music ensemble, and one of its co-founders, Michael Gordon, wrote “Industry,” the instrumental second movement of the CelloOpera. (Another founder, David Lang was recently in Durham for the Anonymous 4 performance of his love fail.)
Beiser’s cello is the only instrument, but in her hands it becomes protean, and her playing generates so many sounds that an orchestra would be superfluous. She speaks the words of the opera’s first section, “Far Off Country,” which come from Henri Michaux’ poem “I Write to You From a Far-off Country,” edited by Beiser and the music composer Eve Beglarian. Helga Davis sings (powerfully, through a wide range) its third section, “Salt,” with its text by Erin Cressida Wilson. Both texts are extremely moving; difficult and lovely, they each speak in the voice of a woman testifying about the end of the world as she knows it. Michaux’ talks about the Holocaust, and Wilson’s give voice to the woman known down through time as “Lot’s Wife.”
The cello is often called the instrument most like the human voice, but usually one thinks of a warm, mellifluous voice, beautiful, when hearing that phrase. Beiser’s cello can be those things, but it can also howl like a screaming wind in a hurricane. A big woman in a sheer white lace dress, she wailed through that amplified million-dollar cello like there was no tomorrow, only this one night, these short minutes, to preserve all knowledge for someone else’s future. Sawing madly, hair flying, bow-strings shredding, her left hand sliding through shriek and growl, she took us into the dark, to the end of time, and then she slapped that big body until the reverb went into a feedback loop, when she threw it, finished, onto the bed.
I am writing to you from the end of the world.
You must realize this.
Often the trees tremble. We collect the leaves.
they have a ridiculous number of veins. What for?
There is nothing between the tree and and leaves anymore… And we go off troubled.
Could life not continue on earth without wind?
Or must everything tremble always, always?
— from I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off Country by Henri Michaux, adapted and set to the original composition FAR OFF COUNTRY by Eve Beglarian
That was just the end of the first section. While Beiser stormed, the four dancers had come and gone in various disturbing ways. They returned a final time coated in mud, dripping and shivering. Each woman sat on a bed and cocooned herself into a winding sheet, then slithered under the scrim to lie still in the dark duff downstage. The frames and jittering lines (fence wire, alternating current, musical staffs) of the video projections gave way entirely to the movement of huge forces: waves, clouds, boiling smoke. Before the feedback had ceased its painful echo, Beiser leapt up, razored open the scrim and emerged—to excavate a stool and another cello.
This one’s electric: neck, bridge and strings, with a drawing in wood of a cello shape around them, standing on a very tall spike. You could see her lace covered leg keeping the beat through the open instrument. The moment she raised it out of the dirt was one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. It was like she was raising the dead. If there is a flaw in Elsewhere, it may be that this staggering sequence somewhat overpowered the beginning of Michael Gordon’s “Industry,” which is quite a wonderful piece, once you can pay attention to it.
Beiser continued on the electric cello for the final section, “Salt,” composed by Missy Mazzoli. Again, there were informative and emotive videos, but singer Helga Davis’ presence is so large and commanding that the videos became rich background elements. The text, which ran across the front scrim as it was being sung, was interesting, if not quite as poetic as Michaux’, but Davis’ vocalizing made it piercing. Her voice together with Beiser’s cello made a song beyond the capacity of words to describe or explain.
This encompassing CelloOpera will next be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Next Wave Festival, Oct. 17-20. If you happen to be in New York, you can go Elsewhere then, and thank Carolina Performing Arts for the patronage that took you there.
Listen to clips from these links:
From Michael Gordon’s INDUSTRY
Sections 1 and 2 from FAR OFF COUNTRY
See video on http://mayabeiser.com
For more on the creative team, including the choreographer, filmmaker and scenic designer, go here.