"It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear."
This aphorism appears on the cover of the program to Christopher Cerrone's opera Invisible Cities. Yet in the Industry's fascinating production at Union Station, it is not the ear shaping the story, but rather the eye.
Usually in opera, the blocking and lighting focus the audience's attention on the characters and actions that the director feels are most important. In Yuval Sharon's site-specific production, each audience member must choose where in Union Station to observe the opera and what characters or dancers to follow.
Figuring out exactly who the performers were was tricky -- Kublai Khan first appeared as a plainly dressed man in a wheelchair amid train station passengers. A black man in a worn flannel shirt, sleeveless hoodie and blue cap wandered through the waiting room, seemingly another homeless person; when he suddenly sang, we realized he was Marco Polo. Eight dancers from LA Dance Project were easier to spot, due to their stylized movements and, at times, their ghostly costumes by E.B. Brooks.
Lit majors may pout that the opera does not adequately portray its source material, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a collection of prose poems about 55 imaginary cities as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. But what art form could do justice to it? Think of Cerrone's opera instead as a brilliant gloss on Calvino.
Using text from the English translation (by William Weaver), Cerrone's libretto delves into three cities -- the last an eerie port where every citizen resembles dead people others have known -- and explores the dynamics between the experienced traveler, Polo, and the powerful but fading emperor, Khan.
An evaluation of the opera's libretto, in its premiere production, becomes difficult. Director Sharon jettisoned nearly all of Cerrone's stage directions, making the work even more abstract. Sharon invited Danielle Agami into the mix to choreograph movement evoking graceful water nymphs, hurrying travelers and stylized royal dance. By staging singers and dancers in different parts of the station at the same time, Sharon forces audience members to choose -- or to serendipitously experience -- their own unique perception of Invisible Cities. Watch the dancers in the courtyard, and you'll miss the singers in the waiting room.
The music, however, stayed true to Cerrone's original vision. Marc Lowenstein smoothly conducted an eleven-piece group that was clearly comfortable with the score. The ensemble was in the old Fred Harvey restaurant, while the soloists strode through other rooms and courtyards. All of the singers and instrumentalists were miked, mixed, and broadcast to wireless headphones that every audience member wore. No matter where you were, you could hear the entire cast and ensemble. Unfortunately, many participants endured static and interference over their headphones during the performance, perhaps caused by audience members taking pictures on their cell phones (despite the stage manager asking them to turn off their phones before the performance began).
The young Brooklyn composers with whom Cerrone is identified are known for blurring lines between indie pop and classical music. Cerrone's compositions eschew these flirtations; his music displays rhythmic flexibility and a grittiness often missing in his colleagues' works. He has a sure grasp of instrumentation; his vocal writing sets one note per syllable in declamatory yet rhapsodic melodies that float above the more regular rhythms and melodic patterns in the orchestra. Cerrone explores limited materials (the first three notes of a minor scale, for instance) with maximal results, developing an entire scene out of three or four pitches without auditory tedium.
In addition to possessing pure, lyric voices, tenor Ashley Faatoalia (as Marco Polo) and baritone Cedric Berry (Kublai Khan) appeared to sing without any conducting or prompting, seeming to rely entirely on their memory of their score to make their entrances. Sopranos Delaram Kamareh and Ashley Knight roamed through the station as well, equally plaintive and sure of their parts.
The recent run of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's groundbreaking Einstein on the Beach, was a sad reminder of how dramatically old-fashioned contemporary American opera is, in spite of Einstein's 38-year-old innovations. So much current opera is depressingly predictable -- take a well-known novel or film with a linear narrative, adapt it for the stage, and give the tenor his high C. Cerrone dared to turn something with an abstract, poetic structure into a subtle and beautiful musical meditation on travel, cultural differences, death, and memory.
Let's hope more American composers and librettists challenge audiences with wonderful, new theatrical experiences -- as Cerrone and Sharon did -- instead of spoon-feeding them known commodities adorned with arias and pretty music.
There are 9 more performances at Union Station on Oct. 29 and 31, and on Nov. 12 and 15 at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and on Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. All performances are currently sold out, but call the Industry at (718) 812-9159 to check for cancellations. If you can't get a ticket, you could still show up at a performance and enjoy the dancing, singing and the spectacle of audience, performers, and train station customers interacting, even if you don't hear the instruments.