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.

A New Make


Alex Waterman, director of Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas, introduced tonight’s performance by remembering what Ashley said to him about re-making his television opera Perfect Lives: “Don’t sell them a used car–make them a new one.” The performance tonight in Marfa, TX, of the Spanish-language version was classically Ashley while inhabiting a vital new magic.

Whether you know Ashley’s operas or not, keeping old opera new is a popular topic right now.  The Economist‘s opera blog posted a piece just last week about Sir Mark Elder’s vision of a La Traviata at this year’s Glyndebourne festival that, he promises, will be new, fresh, and full of exciting discoveries. A tough promise for such an old work. And as the comments show, opera lovers fall passionately on either end of the spectrum about new and old works (and how those distinctions are defined) and staying true to the composer’s intention (whatever that might mean).

Tonight was the final performance of a four-night tour through west Texas, and the finality added an energy akin to a last hour spent with a loved one.  The fearless and talented Ned Sublette, Elio Villafranca, Elisa Santiago, and Raul De Nieves performed the last three out of seven episodes: El Parque (The Park), El Bar (The Bar), and El Patio De Atras (The Backyard). El Parque opened quietly. A strong groove had the floorboards shaking with unconsciously tapping toes by El Bar. But El Patio De Atras was truly spell-binding. Behind a row of old Panasonic televisions, the stage was framed by powerfully colored hanging banners–orange, purple, turquoise, red–that met at the back in two blocks of green. In the last act, these two green blocks opened slowly to the outside where Santiago was standing in a spotlight dressed in a floating gown alone. It was beautiful.

Ashley died this March, but if this production says anything it is that he is very much still alive. Near the end of his introduction, Waterman dedicated the performance to Mimi Johnson and Ashley, saying “They were supposed to be here tonight, but they couldn’t make it”–as though something had just come up in Ashley’s schedule. It was a fitting statement given how strongly Ashley’s influence comes through in this production. It may be a new car, but it still has the peaceful ingenuity I love in Perfect Lives. How much is Ashley and how much is Waterman–that’s harder to say. Who knows what some time will do to this work. What will Perfect Lives look like in 2050? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out.


Summer Intermission: Some Notes

As the summer opera-hiatus drags on—alas, will October never arrive?—a few notes:

Opera is not far away! Alex Waterman directs the late Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas over two weekends in west Texas. Vidas Perfectas is a Spanish iteration of Ashley’s seven-episode television opera Perfect Lives that premiered in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York this spring. It is perhaps his best-known work—a composition that pushes feverishly against traditional and stuffy attitudes about opera to focus on the American vernacular and, most of all, American storytelling. Catch the first four episodes in El Paso on July 12 and the final three in Ciudad Juárez on July 13. The tour moves to Marfa for another two performances on July 18 and 19 (for more info, check out Ballroom Marfa). I’m catching the last night—look out for a review—and you can also watch video recordings of all the episodes (previously filmed in February) here.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones writes a noteworthy spotlight piece on Brian Eno—a composer who continues to thrill and bewilder my notions of musical content. And, surprisingly, Alex Ross takes a more generous approach than some Houston critics (myself included) to Weinberg’s The Passenger, which came through Houston in January and now sees its way through New York.

Robert Ashley, 1930-2014

“There is only one Self. That Self is

Light. The Self is ageless.”

Robert Ashley died yesterday, March 3, at his home in New York. Articles popping up about it emphasize that Ashley was underappreciated and misunderstood. I had not heard of Ashley until I began graduate school. After listening to five minutes of Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon, a solo piece for voice composed in 1971 about sexual abuse, I had the rare feeling one gets only a few times in life: that I had heard something that was going to change how I perceived the world. It might sound cliché, but it’s true, what people are saying, that Ashley’s genius was ahead of his time.

As part of my research lately, I’ve been obsessing over Ashley’s television opera Perfect Lives. It’s an opera that captures American consciousness focusing on its characters more than a plot, though it travels through a park, a bank, a supermarket, a church, and into a friend’s backyard. In Kyle Gann’s biography he cites an interview in which Ashley announced Perfect Lives is “meant to be…seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work.” How refreshing, to think of opera as accessible to anyone with a television and to knock it off its bourgeois pedestal. How refreshing, to think of opera as basically human.

That opening quote is from the fourth episode of Perfect Lives, “The Bar (Differences).” Reading it now, I know it will always coalesce differently for me:

“And things in general are still


I brought up this idea, the idea of

The Tree of Life,

To have something to compare the Self to. We were

Talking about the Self.

We said the Self is without coincidence

Being singular.

We said the Self is without attainment

Being perfect.

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know.

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless…”

Robert Ashley, with glitter in his hair, performing Perfect Lives

“It’s Dynamite!”: Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana at Roulette

Although I should expect it by now, the voice in Robert Ashley’s compositions always catches me unaware and unprepared. Last week, I took a quick trip to New York to hear his latest work at Roulette on Wednesday, December 11. A world premiere, Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana threw the voice as an instrument onto new compositional ground, continually growing in urgency and building in layers until a burst of light and sound brought closure, showing yet again why Ashley is a foremost composer of our time.

The Swiss trio Ensemble Tzara performed Ashley’s composition, which was bookended by David Sontòn’s La metta da fein and Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface, both US premieres. In the middle of these exceptional instrumental pieces, Ashley’s use of the voice was especially set off—to hear a performer’s voice, suddenly, changed my perception of the whole concert. The trio is made up of horn player Samuel Stoll, cellist Moritz Müllenbach, and synthesizer player Simone Keller. Although Ashley’s use of voice tends toward the emotionless, hearing each performer’s voice added a sense of the human to a radically electronic, futuristic sound.

Open, sustained notes in cello and synthesizer began the piece, acting as a foundation for the first vocal part. As the work progressed, all three performers rotated in 16 sequences of speak-singing at the microphone in the center, continuously shifting the instrument color and voice timbre. Understated rhythm from the synthesizer, especially, added texture to the underlying chords.

Ashley created the text from a random set of leaflets advertising books in today’s trivial American literature. The resulting hissing and cracking of consonants was the Rhaeto-Romanic translation of book titles, authors, abstracts, hard- and soft-cover numbers, e-book numbers, and empostazium labels from the randomly-selected set of leaflets. At the first instance of the heavily accented “E S B N”  and “W W W punckt!” I heard a ripple of laughter, but the performance took a more serious turn with a lighting shift from soft blue to green that marked Keller’s first turn at the microphone.

Because the voice plays such an intricate role in Ashley’s compositions, the choice of performer—the individual timbre of a voice—is critical. Not just anyone can perform a given part. Each performer in Ensemble Tzara had a distinct, select tone that danced over the heavy language. The initial switch from Stoll to Müllenbach, for instance, felt drastic. Stoll spat out words vengefully, while Müllenbach spoke calmly in a profound, monotone voice that slowly developed into a more urgent tone conjuring visions of enchantment or incantation.

Stoll and Müllenbach took several turns at the microphone before Keller did, adding a sense of intentionality to her voice. Once all three voices were in the mix, rotations happened more quickly, more seamlessly. The lighting shifted at what felt like a faster rate until a marked change to red at the end. The sequences began to blend, somehow, coming together finally (but remarkably, I had to remind myself, still remaining separate) in a genius, closing chord.

The following night I caught Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met—naturally a drastic change from Ashley’s work, but I found myself thinking more about Mixed Blessings, Indiana than listening to the supple soprano voice of Marina Poplavskaya. I will never forget the first Ashley opera I encountered, That Morning Thing, and how it changed my perception of opera as a genre that can be familiar, approachable, unpretentious, and overall, deeply American. As I left Lincoln Square, the last thing I heard at Roulette the night before coalesced: Ashley buoyantly asserting across the theatre “It’s dynamite! It’s retro-disco!”


Check out press pieces, videos of Ashley’s work (including my favorite, That Morning Thing), his biography, info about upcoming performances, and almost anything else you might want to know about Ashley at his website: robertashley.org