On Re-Watching Solange’s “When I get Home”

When Solange Knowles dropped her full-length video album on March 1, 2019, I watched it in awe of the way it envisioned multiple media working together to tell a story. In music videos, the addition of visuals inherently contextualizes tone, language, and lyrics, but “When I get Home” goes far beyond as an art film that combines images, dance, language, and sound, each element deepening the context of the African American experience. Watching it today, on July 4 with Black Lives Matter protests circling the National Mall less than a mile away from where I live in DC, that gravity has deepened further still.

Set in Houston, the film moves between tempos and timbres but consistently strikes a low-key undertone that commands attention and proclaims confidence: From cowboys and ghillie-suited live artworks to silver-stiletto-enwrapped interstellar women, no one has anything to prove, because they have always been as powerful as you see them here. Knowles celebrates the body, communities and individuals choreographed with an eye to the aerial view as much as the confessional, like around the 28-minute mark when she takes selfie clips to a profound new level.

 

Between the front-yard inflatable pools and the breathtakingly sophisticated fluid choreography staged in art galleries and rodeo arenas, the story begins to assemble itself as multi-faceted to say the least, but, bookended by scenes in the Rothko Chapel, the film grounds itself in the devastating beauty of an experience unequivocally witnessed. Whenever I visited the chapel, Mark Rothko’s 14 iconic and imposing murals—moonless blues, blacks, and violets that fade imperceptibly into one another depending on the illumination from the skylight above—gazed at me, rather than the other way around. The sense that the art sees you is perhaps why so many go to meditate in the space and find clarity.

Today, current events re-cast this film yet again, particularly the ensemble numbers where individuals link together, supporting and rippling as a joint entity not unlike those marching. George Floyd, who grew up in Houston and whose death instigated the protests going on down the street, reverberates unmistakably here as someone whose experience went unseen for too many years. That attention speaks to the nation’s shifting gaze at large. Sandra Bland had been killed in the Houston area by the time Knowles released “When I get Home”, but her name certainly didn’t echo in the way it does now when I look at this film, and the change in focus brings with it shame for America’s stubborn blindness.

Before the film turns back to Rothko Chapel, lyrics call out directions, ending with “Call me if you get lost, etc.” Repeating aurally and flashing textually in the shot, the line finally rests on the last word, “etc.” What will that Latin expression of similarity comprise, I wonder, next year?

 

Streaming Opera: Sheltering in Place

Opera in the age of a pandemic assumes a cutting spectacle. For example, isolated in my home on March 27, I streamed Teatre dell’Opera di Roma’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Unlike the popular Met Live in HD series, the Rome Opera broadcast from limited camera angles with poor sound quality, the conductor’s hand often popping up unintentionally into the shot of the stage. Clearly, the company was doing what it could to make opera available while the city in which it was filmed, ravaged by COVID-19, suffered catastrophic tragedy. The story playing out on screen—a stark production of funerals, underworlds, and furies—was meant as an escape, and perhaps in part it was, but it was also an inescapably sharp reminder of the reality outside.

Scholars have long debated the merits of broadcasting opera on television, weighing accessibility and affordability against the challenges of translating a live experience on screen—one that has achieved clichéd stardom by way of famed transformative experiences from Emma Bovary to Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts. One of my favorite literary epiphanies is in E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, when Miss Abbott, seeking to champion morality and purity, is overcome by a “magic in the encircling air” after a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Although she tries to shut out the sound by closing her bedroom window, she is troubled all night “by torrents of music” that unmask her English values and reveal that they stem from “a joyless, straggling place, full of people who pretended.”

The current slew of streaming opera during shelter-at-home orders shifts the conversation dramatically, where the stakes now center on the financial survival of companies that are desperately trying to shore up centuries-old claims of art’s human value in troubling times. Fabricating performance environment has never been more essential to a performance’s success and calls for a pressing examination of what environment means to performances: how it is created, how it is consumed, how does it remain spectacular?

MLA 2021 Convention Call for Papers

The Forum for Opera and Musical Performance has two exciting panels at next year’s Modern Language Association Annual Convention, which is in Toronto from 7-10 January 2021, and we’re looking for exciting papers to fill them. Send abstracts to Cynthia Chase or to me, or share it with an opera-lit scholar who might be interested! Deadline is March 20.

Opera After World War II: Production, Memory, and Mourning

We invite papers on how operatic productions after WWII participate in, elide, or mediate historical catastrophe or radical discontinuity. 250-word abstracts to Cynthia Chase, Cornell U (cc97@cornell.edu ).

Operatic Spectacle: Screening, Sound, and Vision

We invite 20-minute papers that explore how aspects of screening, sound, and/or vision mediate, undermine or otherwise impact operatic spectacle. Please send 250-word abstracts and short bio to Sydney Boyd, Forum Representative for Opera and Musical Performance.

Magic Flute at Washington National Opera

I’ve been teaching the Egyptian Book of the Dead and have an entirely new appreciation for the opera’s references to Isis and Osiris. This production, with whimsical designs by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, focused more on childhood fancy, which isn’t always a bad thing. Read my review at Bachtrack.

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Sydney Mancasola (Pamina) and Michael Adams (Papageno). Photo credit Scott Suchman

Monk’s ATLAS

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One week ago in Los Angeles, Meredith Monk’s opera ATLAS opened at the LA Phil. It transcended place to isolate humanity at its root using the globe you see here as a means to access both physical space and inner consciousness–a multiplicity of worlds in sight and sound. I’ve been waiting to see this opera for decades and am so thrilled Yuval Sharon took it on, and I openly confess that when Meredith came out for the curtain call, I cried.