It’s a creation by David Li: “We developed a machine learning model trained on the voices of four opera singers in order to create an engaging experiment for everyone, regardless of musical skills. Tenor, Christian Joel, bass Frederick Tong, mezzo‑soprano Joanna Gamble and soprano Olivia Doutney recorded 16 hours of singing. In the experiment you don’t hear their voices, but the machine learning model’s understanding of what opera singing sounds like, based on what it learnt from them.”
My thanks to music critic and dear friend Theodore Bale for dropping me a note about this fascinating production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, available on youtube here (I think for a limited time). It is directed and choreographed by Lucinda Childs, who also choreographed Einstein on the Beach. Among the many warm and wonderful things about escaping in this production, it also stands as a remarkable testament of what humanity has managed to produce during a pandemic.
Amid the holiday kitsch, how about discovering your poetic animal alter-ego in this quiz I wrote for the Federation’s holiday page? Writing it reminded me of all the many creatures that appear across poetry from the obvious (Poe’s raven) to old favorites (Moore’s jellyfish) to the less obvious (Dickinson’s two butterflies, completely forgot about those!). Go down your own rabbit hole here.
From my friend and favorite land artist Falon Mihalic, if you (like me) need to electrify your Wednesday:
I’m teaching a 3-day workshop about public writing for academics this December at Rice University’s Humanities Research Center. Check it out and register here!
Thinking intentionally about what audience we want to capture and what our purpose is, this workshop will focus on how to navigate tone, diction, and form on different print and digital platforms to render sophisticated academic introspections as legible and relatable to a general public.
It’s going to be quite a week. Take a load off and find your Humanities Horoscope, which I wrote with attention to the stars in accordance with the blue moon this weekend.
I have had the best time talking to humanities councils all over the American states and territories about their work. And I have had an even better time writing about them in a new blog the Federation of State Humanities Councils has launched as part of the Humanities in American Life initiative that I manage.
Also, wherever you are, there’s probably a very cool humanities program going on, so check out the map here and go exploring yourself!
Reading Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread this afternoon, I’m reminded of those ancient days of yore when the active experience of going to the opera offered reprieve from certain realities (such as the everyday stress of rescuing a baby from obvious Italian amorality). Forster’s cleverly mocking prose kills, as ever, in lines like “tilting against the powers of evil,” granting another variety of satisfying escape from the reality of my living room desk. Here are Caroline Abbott and Harriet heading into the theatre:
“So this strenuous day of resolutions, plans, alarms, battles, victories, defeats, truces, ended at the opera. Miss Abbott and Harriet were both a little shamefaced. They thought of their friends at Sawston, who were supposing them to be now tilting against the powers of evil. What would Mrs. Herriton, or Irma, or the curates at the Back Kitchen say if they could see the rescue party at a place of amusement on the very first day of its mission?”
Their “place of amusement” is watching Lucia go mad in Donizetti’s opera, but you do you girl.
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?
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?