Monday, June 20, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Where Is Evil?" (on David Lang and Mark Dion's Anatomy Theater)

where is evil?
by Douglas Messerli

David Lang and Mark Dion (libretto), David Lang (composer) Anatomy Theater / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Disney Hall; the performance Howard Fox and I saw was at the matinee on Sunday, June 19, 2016 

Composer David Lang’s and designer Mark Dion’s new work, Anatomy Theater, which received its world premiere at the Disney Center’s Redcat theater is more like a Broadway operetta in the manner of Sweeney Todd than being a true opera. Yet the LAOpera’s Off Grand production, the last of this season’s productions, represents a fascinating contribution to the musical canon that cannot easily be forgotten.

       Based on true occurrences in early 18th century, when criminals and paupers were publically dissected after their deaths to determine where the evil existed in their bodies, this manifestation concerns a young woman, Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell), who, beaten and sexually abused by her step-father, was locked out of her own home and was forced to survive as a prostitute. After marrying her pimp, she is regularly beaten by him as well. Lacing her husband’s gin with laudanum, she then proceeded to smother him before hushing her two young children and smothering them in turn.

       Beginning with the confession in the theater’s art gallery, Sarah is promptly hung before the eyes of the gathered opera audience who have been served up, as they might have in the 18th century, ale and sausages. The Master of Ceremonies, Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch) then encourages the crowd (“Follow me quickly, gentlemen”) to enter the theater proper to observe the anatomy itself. 
       Accompanied by the anatomist, Baron Peel (Robert Osbourne) and his operating assistant, Ambrose Strang (Timur), the trio then proceed to anatomize the tools they will be using before cutting, yanking, and dissecting the various parts of Sarah’s naked and bleeding body—the work’s program note humorously begins, “No singers were harmed in the creation of this opera"—in the attempt to find which of her organs was responsible for her horrific behavior.
       Obviously, there is rank smell of the mob in this theatrical presentation, and Crouch does his best to bring out the bestial lusts of his declared male audience (surely the sight of a beautiful nude woman upon an operating table whose dead body was being, quite literally, raped—her innards being carried away—must have titillated audiences of the day, and even today’s audience began with oddly-placed giggles before settling down to a more serious consideration), and, accordingly, we are made to comprehend, even in viewing this “representation” of the act, our inward lusts. Yet the self-inflated anatomist, Peel, argues that it is a necessary act to prove that all parts of the body must be attune with the others and the world around them in order to allow us to be a good citizens of the world.

       One by one, the bowels, the pancreas, the heart, and even the uterus is removed by Strang and inspected, as blood pours from the dead woman’s body—still the very live singer Southwell, who claimed she had to study meditation to bring her breathing down to a slight pulse for the 45 minutes of her “operation.”
     “Where is evil?” is the question the trio ask again and again. Yet they can find no contagion in any of her parts. It is apparent that the evil they are seeking lies not in the corpse, but in us, the human society which turned a blind eye to all of her abuse. And, obviously, as Lang has hinted in his comments, that fact makes this opera very contemporary, particularly within the context of the mob of haters who embrace a candidate such as Donald Trump.

       Lang’s music, as Los Angeles Times musical roots, as critic Mark Swed has written, is difficult to name. Obviously, as a founding member of the “Bang on the can” composers, percussion is essential; yet here there are beautifully lyrical moments, as well, such as Southwell’s lovely, operating table-aria, concerning the pureness of her heart despite her horrible deeds, where flutes, piano, viola, cello, and even accordion take precedence. At one point there is a rousing trumpet solo by wild Up performer, Aaron Smith.  
     Lang has become an increasingly impressive American composer. My only complaint is that I wish the run of this work had a bit a longer so that I might have returned to hear it again. Maybe a reprise next year? The Long Beach Opera did this quite successfully with Lang’s and Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

Los Angeles, June 20, 2016