n’est ce pa une opera

The world premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes it even more difficult to define his body of work. Zachary Woolfe (who reviewed it for the NYT) insists that  Quicksand is categorically “opera,” but he’s responding to the many people who insist that Ashley’s work is performance art, or theatre, or a spoken-word concert. Ashley resists categorization, but do we still need to put him in a box?

It’s the first opera staged without Ashley alive to direct its vision, although several of his core (artists who worked with him closely for many years) have a hand here: Tom Hamilton (orchestra, sound, live mix), David Moodey (light design), Steve Paxton (choreography). Quicksand is a detective-mystery novel Ashley wrote and published in 2011. The only sound in this production is his melodic voice reading the novel from beginning to end over a colorful electronic hum while two performers (Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar) move on stage.

I saw it at The Kitchen in New York City last night. About fifteen minutes into the performance, I wondered if I had made a mistake by reading the novel first, as though I had inadvertently pulled one medium out like a thread from the multi-media work. As a book that you read silently to yourself, Ashley’s attention to language falls out of the experience. Staged, hearing each word spoken lyrically in Ashley’s characteristic way, the language becomes music beautifully. And the sound was realized visually by soft colors (blue, yellow, pinkish-red) and calculated movement. The performers, sometimes dancing, sometimes acting, ducked and stretched under a patchwork sheet that billowed and pulled throughout the 3-hour show. I suspect the novel’s narrative is a mis-direction. The real story is in the sight of sound.

It’s difficult to say what this is; it is much easier so say what lines it toes: It’s a novel that’s not a novel, an opera that’s not an opera, and a dance that’s not a dance.

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