There are a wide variety of questions I asked myself as I sat for a little more than two-and-a-half hours seeing Facing Goya, the hard-to-describe-without-being-flip opera playing in the beautiful, albeit uncomfortable, Dock Street Theatre. Visually interesting and aurally a tad surprising, I spent most of the evening trying to decide if I liked this opera. I’m still not sure.
This music carried us onto the set designed by Riccardo Hernandez, a set that was sparse and minimalistic and a true reflection of what we were about to see. If you are looking for a grand opera, this is not the one. The curtain is open and the orchestra is tuning up as you enter the space. The stage has what appears to be a very small empty plexiglass box hanging on a pipe directly center stage. There is no furniture on the strong raked stage, and you don’t know whether the upstage “wall” is a cyc or a screen (turns out it is the latter) and you wait. It is minimalist in nature, not just because every printed article previewing the show mentions it, but from the seat, one can look into the backstage area, see stage hands in black, with head sets and no shame in being seen before the show begins. The audience can see the fly rail and cables that control the batons that will clearly come in and out. Immediately, the set is suggesting: “We are hiding nothing. We are not going to attempt to be more than we are. Come along, shall you?”
Slowly, we watch as Austin Switser’s projection design is the first character of the show, a character seemingly based on one of de Goya’s quotes about the lines we see in nature, “… planes that advance or planes that recede, reliefs or backgrounds.” The projections sometimes appeared to be equally informed by the old Etch-a-Sketch, lines rolling up and circles created and destroyed.
The exploration of science versus the soul and money versus all was pretty clear from the rip, with all the prattling in high notes about measuring heads and Negroes and apes and the proper shaped face, snub noses, and finally Hitler’s yen to create the master race done by a cleverly cast multi-cultural company of five. An opera in four acts and sung completely in English (with English subtitles for those who can’t understand the highest of the high notes) Facing Goya imagines the psychic battle between an art banker who somehow has gotten hold of the bedazzled skull of the Goya, the father of modern art. She then time travels trying to keep the skull out of the hands of scientists who are, apparently, heartless and soulless and stubborn as hell. But not she. The Art Banker (played by Suzanne Gùzman) has decided to fight the scientists.
In the meantime, Aundi Marie Moore, the Soprano 2, and Museop Kim the Bariotone, both of whom had splendid voices being pushed by Nyman’s music, played scientists with consciences. It just might be that it couldn’t be helped. All that brain measuring and phrenology by the craniometrists of the time suggested that this Asian man and this African American woman would just not be able to compete. Thomas Michael Allen, the smarmy and cocksure tenor, represented the worst of the worst unapologetically and with surety. He was, after all, the privileged white man at the top of it all. The Soprano 1, Anne-Carolyn Bird, was a lovely actress, connecting with the live feed camera used the entire night against the projection screen, writhing sensually on the floor as she spouted the most anti-feminist lines ever sung. The cast is tight and they worked this opera for all of its oddness and preachiness about the woes of modern science, reminding us that some scientific ideas are both harmful and dumb as hell. And scary.
Every element, including the whimsical yet practical costume design by Anita Yavich, complemented the other and the idea and truth of the piece: sparse, minimalistic, repetitive if not a bit preachy. And in some crazy way, it works. It’s weird and unexpected, but you listen even as you wish you had thought to bring a plush cushion to sit through it.
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