I’m OK with an abstract approach to any given medium: visual art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, theater. So I figured, hey, since I’ve never in my life yearned to see a traditional opera, maybe a contemporary mind-fuck version will be right up my alley.
If you happen to be in this boat, go ahead and grab a Spoleto Festival USA program. Turn to page 21. Start reading. This is a production where you have to have a foundation, regardless of your opera acumen, regardless of your supposed need to subsume all creative forms. Grab a highlighter and an espresso while you’re at it.
When I interviewed director Ong Keng Sen way back in February, he reflected on the opera, which is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, which itself is based on another book: “The whole book is an entire work of art. If you know its history, he [Foer] cuts through the book and in that way opens up negative and positive spaces … he reconsiders the book as a scuplture, a kind of distillation. It’s very meditative in a strange way.”
The imagery of the set is stunning. There is a ‘monolith’ — inspired by Rachel Whiteread’s Jewish Memorial Nameless Library in Vienna — serving as the centerpiece around which the two leads circle. It seems to grow up from the stage at an angle, like a deserted dystopian building. A sheer screen comes down in the beginning and again near the end, with lights playing against the surface as Marisol Montalvo, who plays Adela, and Elliot Madore, who plays the Son and the Father, move behind it, an ambient, almost submarine like beeping flooding the theater. It’s incredibly disturbing. Which I guess is part of the point — In Liza Lim’s composer notes, she writes: “Displacement and dissociation of time, space, and identity create effects of menace and wonder. What is authentic? What is fake?”
Madore and Maltavo have the voices of angels. As a first time opera goer, even I can recognize that these two are immensely talented (and their bios back that up, by the way). Madore plays a son who has lost his father, and also the father, who has been gifted an extra day of life (this I gleaned from the program). Montalvo plays a guide, a sagacious presence leading the Son through a purgatory space, “within the margin of secret time.”
The Spoleto Festival USA orchestra produces a resplendent score, creating the “musical landscape” Ong referenced in our interview. There is also a “dresser,” played by Walter Dundervill, who moves along the stage, slowly, bringing elaborate material with him to costume Montalvo and Madore. Dundervill dons an apron the kind a butcher might wear. Again, disturbing. And also, pretty distracting. Between the stage dressing and the words projected above the stage on a narrow screen — the opera was almost entirely sung in English, and seeing the random assortment of words on a screen didn’t do much in the way of edification — I wasn’t sure where to look. I’m ashamed to say my watch was where my eyes were most drawn.
Maybe it was over my head. Maybe I’m not ready for opera of any kind. But the well-dressed gentleman next to me was also not-so- secretly glancing at his wrist, and a couple a few rows up literally climbed over a wall to get out of the theater. Maybe I should’ve taken a cue from Ong and purchased a copy of Foer’s book. “When I actually read it,” said Ong in our interview, “It brought me closer to the issues. I think that art about art has become extremely popular in the last decade or last two decades; books about books, films about films, performances about performances. That’s why my initial skepticism was actually kind of erased when I read the book. I began to see this is not art about art.”
I love Foer, I love A Humument — another cut out book that took one beautiful source and created another entirely — I love the language that was used in the script, sung high to the heavens. But no, I did not love Tree of Codes. I’m afraid to say I didn’t even like it. I’m going to keep meditating on it, though — I hope maybe this is a young wine that needs a few more days in my brain barrel to truly appreciate.