To Boldly Go Where No Opera Has Gone Before Opera: The Next Generation

by Robert Faires

Opera smells of age. That isn't meant as a slap at the venerable form of musical drama; it's merely a comment on the way opera is enveloped almost exclusively in the past. The operatic works produced most frequently today are the products of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their subjects are often historical in nature, figures of history or ancient myth, and we typically present them in period dress. Even modern attempts at opera, such as Ghosts of Versailles and Nixon in China, tend to look backward in time, even if it's only a few decades. By and large, opera rarely stares into the future.

But it is doing so now.

The Black Blood, which opens December 29 at Planet Theatre, is a new opera which turns its gaze firmly, resolutely, toward tomorrow. It attempts to bring the form into the era of technology, this age in which machines are an integral part of human existence, and even to project it into an era in which metal and flesh are fused. Composer Chad Salvata and his electronic music group Ethos call the piece a cybernetic opera.

According to Salvata and Bonnie Cullum, who is directing the VORTEX Repertory Company production, The Black Blood is unquestionably an opera. In form, the work fits squarely into the operatic tradition. The work is a musical drama with no spoken dialogue; everything is sung. In content, The Black Blood echoes the great tragic operas of old. Its story concerns brothers, opposites in nature, in a battle for control of a world; a king who is corrupted and his son who challenges his evil father only to become like him. The consequences of these actions are rape and murder. The issues raised by them are centuries old: the legacy of the past, the sins of the father being visited on the son, the abuse of power.

But The Black Blood offers this old wine in a very new wineskin, one that gleams and resounds with a metallic clang. To begin with, the cybernetic opera's sound is, according to Cullum, "ultra-modern and contemporary." The basis for Ethos' score is techno-trance music, the driving repetitive electronic music that evolved from the rave style. Still propelled by an insistent beat but slower and more spacey in its rhythms, techno-trance is "New Age music with a beat," says Salvata. "And an edge," adds Cullum. Salvata has adapted the style to suit the needs of a musical drama. He has abandoned the sustained intensity of pure techno-trance for a variety of moods and tempos. Cullum fills out the picture: "Some of the songs are very hard-edged and industrial. Others are softer, more melodic."

As these descriptions suggest, the quality of the sound differs substantially from that found in a traditional opera. Gone are the natural strings, reeds, percussion, and brass of the unamplified orchestra. The instruments used by Ethos are all electronic. The material is composed on computers and synthesizers; its beat is kept by electronic percussion. What's more, the sound of the performers is altered, too. "We hear embellished voices," explains Salvata. The actors perform with headset microphones and their singing is processed electronically before it is heard by the audience. There are two kinds of processing, according to the composer, a lyrical sound closer to the sound of a natural human voice, and a style called "voicescape," which is more improvisational and alters the character of the voice more radically. The upshot is that at no point during the performance is a human voice heard in its natural state.

While the all-electronic sound may seem little more than a state-of-the-art gimmick, it is in fact at the heart of Salvata's concept of the cybernetic opera: a synthesis of the human and the machine. The composer/creator is intent upon having the mesh of flesh and metal integrated into every aspect of the production, even in the way the characters move. In the VORTEX production, all the performers will be walking, turning, gesturing, in a very stylized manner, a cybernetic style. "The movement and the energy is very mechanical and yet it's very human," says Cullum. "It has a very dynamic edge; it departs from ordinary movement in much the same way that Butoh departs from dance."

The form of "cybernetic" movement originated in Salvata's individual performance art, where he refined it to an elaborate degree. "Chad had been developing this style for years," notes Cullum, but that was primarily for his own use. With the production of The Black Blood, Salvata was having to teach it to a cast of actors. "So Chad and I worked together on the choreography," says Cullum. "It's really teamed choreography. We figured out these are possible head movements, these are possible arm gestures. Then we taught it to the cast. At first, it looked very robotic. But then, once people assimilated the movement, the individual actor's human movements were brought in. So, each person's `cybernetic' movement is different and it's as much human as it is mechanical."

Further exploring the human/machine dichotomy in the visual realm are designer T'Cie Mancuso's outfits for the performers. "The costumes are particularly spectacular," says Cullum. "They're made of a lot of metal -- tubes and pipes, products of the 20th century -- but with the softer lines of skin showing through in many places. There's a lot of skin showing," she laughs. "But none of the looks are naturalistic. They're all otherworldly. We have some elements that look very futuristic, like something out of Star Trek, and others which look very fantastical, like something out of Tolkein."

This fusion of Middle Earth and the edge of the galaxy, of the futuristic and the fantastic, the human and the mechanical, has been a long time in the making. Salvata sowed the first seeds of the piece in his performance art in Houston years ago. His work on this particular script dates back some five years. When he moved to Austin in the early Nineties, Salvata approached Cullum about developing the work, thinking VORTEX a natural venue for the piece. Coincidentally, Salvata's name had been passed to Cullum by the head of the Houston arts organization Diverseworks. She invited Salvata to perform excerpts from The Black Blood at VORTEX's fifth birthday party, then had him present more of it last December at a special preview and fundraiser. The past year has been spent focusing on the development of a full production. And now that's come.

But when The Black Blood closes January 6, don't expect that to be the last you hear of cybernetic opera. Salvata envisions the piece as the first part in a trilogy, The X and Y Trilogy. The second and third parts of it, Panoptikon and Triskelion, respectively, explore the repercussions of the tragedies in The Black Blood and investigate further the dangers of a lack of balance in our existence. "The later works," says the composer, "examine prison as a metaphor for contemporary life and the decentralization of life in this country, but dealt with in a fairy tale setting."

As seems natural, Salvata has his eye on the future. But the future doesn't come easy, as he and Cullum have learned from the current project. In creating this future form of opera, says Cullum, "We were all at Square Zero. But we were fortunate to have a bright, talented group of performers willing to experiment. Because it is so unusual, in the work's sound, in its movement, a classically trained singer or a classically trained actor might go, `What is this?' But these performers didn't. They went ahead.

"The challenges for me as an artist have been great. And the way has been full of risks. But I've never seen anything like this. It has such a dynamic and original quality. It experiments with form and content. It's a new frontier and I think that's terribly exciting." n

The Black Blood will be performed Dec 29-Jan 6 at Planet Theatre.

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