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Wooster Group Comes West 

Dido, Aeneas and zombies from outer space

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009
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“I didn’t study theater, I studied painting and art; I think I come to theater from a different place,” says Elizabeth LeCompte, director of New York’s The Wooster Group, which recently announced an annual residency at REDCAT. Next week, LeCompte brings her heralded staging of Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera, La Didone (libretto by Giovan Francesco Busenello), based on the doomed love affair between the Trojan war hero, Aeneas, and the widow Queen of Carthage, Dido. Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas told much the same story, but LeCompte didn’t want to stage Purcell’s more famous version, even though she, and composer Bruce Odland, listened to German recordings of Cavalli’s music, and both admit to disliking it intently.

Odland describes the opera he heard as “suffocating” and “stiff” — not the music itself, but the interpretations of it. About three years ago, Odland persuaded the reluctant LeCompte to explore the opera more deeply, with the motive of giving it a fresh coating.

LeCompte (who along with Odland and the lead mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn spoke to the Weekly via telephone from New York) says she pursued the project “because sometimes when I don’t like something, it makes me curious.” LeCompte says the original score, which was found by lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, is much more sparse than the German renderings they’d heard on tape.

click to enlarge PAULA COURT - The Wooster Group’s La Didone
  • Paula Court
  • The Wooster Group’s La Didone

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The original was in a “weird 17th-century clef” which LeCompte says “nobody [from the company] could read or translate. ... Once we got the [four recruited opera] singers together, all of us worked together, they taught us to sing it; we’re not singers, we had to learn the Italian and how to sing it. We were working with them on our particular way of performing, and they were working on us. Some people talk about how difficult it is to work on opera because of opera singers, I found they were willing to do anything.”

“The singers really know this stuff,” adds Odland. “It would be rough to translate this into Russian or German and then sing it. Early opera is only one syllable per note, these true Italian vowels are beautiful when sung — when you do umlauts or English sounds, they don’t fall on the mouth in the same way — they don’t sail in the air as the Italian.

“Cavalli had a favorite niece and he liked the way she spoke poetry, so his niece would read the Busenello libretto, and he would jot down the inflection and the rhythm in which she spoke and then fill in the note. There was very little ornamentation in those days. Just the notes corresponding to the syllables, and we’ve reproduced that very faithfully.”

LeCompte says the second challenge was to cut it down from three and a half hours to an hour and 45 minutes. “The first part of it is the Trojan War. Most people focus on that. We made the Trojan War the back story.”

It’s the third part that defines what The Wooster Group is. LeCompte wasn’t satisfied with the mere task of unearthing a little-known opera from across the seas and the centuries. Intermingled throughout LeCompte’s La Didone is a live acting-out of Mario Vaba’s cult 1965 film about space zombies Terrore Nello Spazio (released in America as Planet of the Vampires).

LeCompte describes herself unapolagetically as a formalist who works from the outside in.

“I’m not competing with film, I want to do what film can’t do. That’s always a process of reinventing. I look for my form, not from the content, but from other people, from other texts, from people in my company.”

LeCompte says she’s “very tech savvy, I just can’t type, that’s been my saving grace, and why I didn’t end up a secretary in 1965.”

She says she understands deeply what technology can do, but she needs other people to help her.

“I can’t type it in. They type it in. They’ll invent something I couldn’t have imagined. And when I describe what I want, I can’t act it because I don’t know how to perform, but I have this idea of how to perform. I’m a geek, I’m a weird geek who fits perfectly into this place in the company.” Last year, LeCompte brought to REDCAT her production of Hamlet,in which the actors both competed with, and slid into, a fastidiously timed, split-second-by-second imitation of the filmed 1964 performance by Richard Burton. The film (which also incorporated moments of Hamlet by other movie strars) was broadcast onto screens all over the stage, and on occasion it fell out of its sprockets — deliberately so — leaping forward or backwards by a few seconds and occasionally dissolving into static. This required the living performers to back up or fast forward in order to re-find their synchronicity with the technology. The juxtaposition asked all manner of disturbing questions about what we presume is an authentic, living experience, and how that experience gets recorded, and the dubious relationship of that record to the experience itself — and what all that says about the precariousness of what we take to be real, and what we take to be memory.

Mezzo Soprano Hai-Ting Chinn says she landed the leading role of Dido in La Didone through an audition — though she admits she had been referred to the company by a mutual friend.

“We started by playing the movie [Planet of the Vampires], and we sang the opera at the same time, just to see what would happen. We did a lot of rehearsing in full costume and lights with all the tech going, because Liz throws a lot of things onto the stage to see what happens. Nothing was in any order at the beginning. We put them in some kind of order.”

Chinn says that the process of creating a Wooster show is so organic, it’s hard to track the origins of many of the ideas.

“At some point, we’re sitting around in Liz’s living room working in this way of playing it, and [actor Scott] Shepherd gets bored and picks up a ukulele from the wall, and suddenly he’s playing it. And now in the production, he’s in a silver space suit and still holding on to this ukulele the whole time.

“A lot of time, LeCompte doesn’t bother to decide, she just doesn’t forbid. Another time, she rages at how we’re not doing what she told us to do five minutes ago. She doesn’t even know if we’ve done something because we decided to, or she chose it. It’s like being in kindergarten all day.”

Not that the playground didn’t have its stresses.

“There were moments where we insisted we couldn’t do things while we were singing. Five-hour rehearsals are too much on the classical voice. Normally if we were in long rehearsals we would mark vocally; Liz had a lot of trouble because she was constantly working on sound, she needed to hear it full out. Some of the singers would admit they had a lot of trouble maybe understanding the theatrical language that Liz was speaking, and the Wooster Group thing — they work so closely together that they intuit what she means. We [the four recruited singers] didn’t have that. We had a lot of trouble trying to interpret what she was getting at when she said something. I think there were stresses from people trying to sing well, or act in a way, then being asked to do something entirely new every four minutes.”

LeCompte tries to articulate the underlying reason she does what she does: “What I want to try to do is make the theater space as vibrant and as three-dimensional as possible. I mean that socially, physically, psychologically. Most of all, I want to make it new, something I haven’t seen before, something that can’t be done in any other place.”

La Didone will be performed by the Wooster Group at REDCAT, located in the southwest corner of Disney Hall, downtown; opens Thurs., June 11, 8:30 p.m.; performances are Tues.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no performances June 15 & 18); through June 21. (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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