As Omaha prepares for the launch of Opera Omaha’s first-ever ONE Festival, we wanted to offer a deeper look into three of the performance series that will be offered throughout the city. From the Bemis Center of Contemporary Art, to Gallery 1516, to a unique on-site location at 1407/1409 Jackson Street, these performances expand opera beyond the doors of the conventional theater. Adam Larsen, curator and filmmaker of The Dharma at Big Sur, Annie Saunders, curator and director of The Wreck, and R.B. Schlather, curator and director of Ariodante, offer us insight into the creative process and inspiration behind these three different performance series.
The Dharma at Big Sur
For Adam Larsen, the curator and filmmaker behind The Dharma at Big Sur, the idea of “dharma” was a foreign concept when he first started to work on this installation. He thought he understood it as “one’s purpose,” but admitted: “I’m not sure how one finds purpose in all this when there’s not enough time; when it feels impossible to find balance.”
Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Adam Larsen grew up amidst the inspiring landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. As the years went by, however, and Adam pursued his career, he realized that he had lost his connection to the land. “Cities occupy my attention now with comforts like “the best” coffee, the freshest ceviche, or really the most “authentic” anything. Often a five-minute walk through a park on the way to the next gig is all the nature I get.”
When thinking about the concept of “dharma,” and its relation to this installation piece, Adam acknowledged that one of the only places where he feels truly balanced is in nature: “Life moves with such furious momentum and I only realize I’m holding my breath with the smell of Spring. I exhale as the sun warms my face. And I finally breathe in again when I feel the wind. I take comfort in the immense chaos of nature - the endless cycles, cascades of violence and fruition, rupture and release. In it I’m able to accept the turbulence within as “my nature.”
John Adams, the composer of The Dharma at Big Sur, wrote the piece to commemorate the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new home at Disney Hall in 2003. For the composer, this piece was an expression of his personal journey westward from New England to the West Coast. In his own words, John Adams described his musical score as “a dreamlike vision of the coastline, as homage to this moment of arrival.”
For Adam Larsen, however, his first trip to Big Sur left a very different impression. In his experience, Big Sur “wasn’t soft like my home” or “dreamlike” as John Adams had described it. Instead, Adam Larsen felt that “the land was perilous and abrupt and standing on its edge made me afraid. And yet listening to The Dharma at Big Sur in that uncomfortable place transformed the feeling of fear into something exultant and nearly sacred. Perhaps purpose or dharma isn’t a destination you can arrive to, but an act of confronting one’s own turbulent “nature,” or as John would say, “the music is in between the notes.”
“I am thankful for both journeys Dharma has initiated - the physical one that awed my senses and took my breath, and the metaphysical one taken with eyes closed, finding pathways through my own wilderness. I believe one begets the other. The more we venture out and the more we journey in, the richer our dharma becomes.”
For curator and director Annie Saunders, creating The Wreck on-site in Omaha is an important part of the experiential aspect of the performance. As an artistic director, Saunders says that she “is inspired by space and by concepts and images that contrast or magnetize one another in a way that casts light on something universal and otherwise hidden. I conceive and create works that interrogate complex emotional and intellectual experiences, interweave performative genres and engage audiences in moments of spontaneous intimacy through performance. The work characteristically pulls together original material alongside found or sampled sources to create what I think of as an assemblage sculpture of live performance.”
Although an original production, The Wreck draws inspiration from several sources, including Dvořák’s Rusalka—a Czech opera that first premiered in Prague in 1901. In Slavic mythology, rusalkas are considered water nymphs, the spirits of women who have died by drowning or other unnatural causes. Perhaps the most famous variation of this myth is Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, which Disney popularized into The Little Mermaid. In Anderson’s original story, the Sea Witch warns the Little Mermaid: “Your tail will divide and shrink until it becomes what the people on earth call a pair of shapely legs. Everyone who sees you will say that you are the most graceful human being they have ever laid eyes on. But it will feel as if a sharp sword slashed through you; every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades...” As curator and director Annie Saunders puts it, “The mermaid had grace and beauty, but an anguish that no one could see.”
For Saunders, The Wreck was an opportunity to create an original piece of immersive opera-theatre that examined the stories of Rusalka and The Little Mermaid “stripped to their elemental meaning.” As she thought about creating this piece, Saunders imagined that they would ask two questions: “what it takes and what it means for a woman to leave home, and what it feels like to be torn between two worlds or try to live in two worlds at once.” For Saunders, this story also held potency in terms of opera, as both deal intimately with the female voice, throat, mouth, lungs and body.
To answer these questions, Saunders began to look at the poetry of American women who had in some way left home, or tried to live in two worlds at once, and who had themes of water coursing through their work. As Saunders explains: “I dove deeply into Anne Sexton, Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich. All offered parallels to the mermaid who longs for another life in which only she believes, undergoes incredible violence to leave home, and continues to struggle through a pain that only she can feel. Rich used the drowned shipwreck exploration dive as a metaphor for psycho-introspection and spoke extensively of the female double life in which women make life endurable for each other. This led into Sexton, who used to write with the phone off the hook on a connection to her friend Maxine Kumin, on the line with the receiver connected and on the desk to know the other was there: an open channel. Sexton also infamously used grant money to install a swimming pool. Lastly, Walker, whose life and work so sharply reveal the struggles of women in American society, and who uses water to illuminate the double life, the paradox:
water is always
and does not belong
to any [...] containers
though it creates them.
And so it is with you.
Alongside these sources we researched the mammalian dive reflex, the state of the world’s oceans, the aftermath of floods, the vagal nerve, and much more. The music in The Wreck is pulled from Mariana’s original compositions, folk music, opera and song repertory, and the experimentation in our ten-day residency. Sound and visual design elements have been created site-responsively. We have created this work from scratch, collaboratively, in this space, over the last ten days, using music, text, sound and visual design, and live improvisation to create action, interaction and movement.”
Featuring the voices of two female soloists and original compositions from Ukrainian composer Mariana Sadovska, The Wreck offers a unique way to experience and examine themes of feminine experience in a way that can affect all who attend the performances. As parting words to reflect on the process of creating this work, Saunders offers: “This excavation, this assemblage, the sunken trash and treasure is laid out in the work. We thank you for being with us for the dive.”
For many lovers of opera, R.B. Schlather’s exploration of Handel’s Ariodante will be unlike any performance they’ve seen before. Rather than a culmination in one final performance, Schlather explains that the artists’ labor and rehearsals over the six days, going through the music of Handel’s score, is the performance. In his words: “You can come once; you can come six times. You can come for fifteen minutes, or until we finish. It’s about slowing down, taking time, having space, and immersing yourself in sound, in feeling, in opera.” And that component of audience-immersion is unique to the space that Ariodante will be performed in. Rather than at the Orpheum, the rehearsal process for Ariodante will take place at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. While some directors might find this off-putting, R.B. Schlather is approaching these performances with a different mind-set, exploring what it means to perform an opera in a sculpture facility:
“What I like about being in a gallery is there’s also a different relationship between viewer (you) and object (us). You can behave differently. In a theater there is a proscenium, or frame, to look at. And you sit in chairs, in the dark, and are expected to be quiet. In a gallery, you are free. There’s a lot of space for you to navigate on your own, in consideration of the object of attention. Your relationship, what you perceive, is personal and real.
To me opera’s uniqueness and value is the immersion in live, human-made sound. It’s the intimacy with the excellence of performers and musicians. Here, that intimacy becomes the experience of Ariodante.”
The relationship between this piece and those who listen to it will be affected by the rehearsal process, the physical performance space, and the story behind the libretto. The plot of Handel’s Ariodante, written at the height of his popularity as a composer of opera, is originally drawn from a Renaissance poem. The story is about Ginevra, the daughter of the King, who is promised to the knight Ariodante. The entitled Duke Polinesso desires her, and manipulates her maid, Dalinda, into an illusion that tricks Ariodante into believing Ginevra has been unfaithful. This leads to a series of false information, resulting in a violent retribution and traumatized reconciliation.
For R.B. Schlather, the violence, abuse and humiliation involved in the plot and libretto of Ariodante was difficult to represent theatrically. As he explains, “I struggle with the responsibility of asking performers to do that to each other. And I question the value in you watching those images. Because we live in a culture with a lot of very problematic real violence and abuse. So making fake images for you to watch doesn’t feel entertaining or instructive. It feels dishonest.”
Ariodante, directed by R.B. Schlather and conducted by Geoffrey McDonald, promises to be a powerful exploration of Handel’s composition, and “a moral and spiritual (and quietly political) spectacle.”
“Come. Stay as long as you want. Come again. Bring a friend. And listen.”