The Mouse Man Cometh
[The Perfect American - Long Beach Opera]


"Walt Disney", as a name, has never gone away, although it was 50 years this past December 15 since Walter Elias Disney the man expired. It is likely difficult for anyone much younger than 60 to understand what a constant and continuing presence Disney the man had in and culture straight up to the moment of his death. Philip Glass's twenty-fifth opera, The Perfect American, which on Sunday received its belated U.S. premiere via Long Beach Opera, explores and (as it were) reanimates the man in the most appropriate way: by spinning him through a mirror-fragmented jumble of stories.

Adapted, by librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, from a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk (Der König von Amerika), The Perfect American takes place during the final months of Disney's life, imagining him hospitalized and lighting out for the territory of dreams and occasional nightmares, recalling versions of his past, confronting his history, his strengths and weaknesses, what he was and became and might be in the future. Citizen Kane-like, it freights its protagonist's earliest years - here, Disney's childhood in Marceline, Missouri, in the company of his indispensable brother, Roy - ceiling-high with significance and meaning.


Dramatically, it works more often than not, producing a nuanced and faceted Portrait of the Artist as a Messy and Perhaps Unknowable Human Being. Reports from the world premiere in Madrid in 2013 focused in on the critiques, particularly the conclusion of Act 1 in which Disney voices an array of [sadly standard for their day] racist views, and is set upon by his own Audioanimatronic simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln. The racist attitudes are there, certainly, as are Disney's willingness to battle union labor and to bare knuckle it against anyone who stood in the way of his sometimes self-important creative vision. But if these flaws are not forgiven - and they are not - they play off against what their human carrier accomplished: not a business empire built on shabby real estate deals or moving other people's money around, but an empire built on finding, feeding and fulfilling the dreams of others. Disney is seen here (though the comparison is never made overtly) as a figure akin to Wagner, whose creative work is not ultimately poisoned by his sometimes deplorable personal qualities. 

At Long Beach, director Kevin Newbury and his design team have confined the entirety of the literal action to Walt's hospital room and the theater of the patient's mind. When Walt casts back on his fondness for trains, hospital beds become trains. When he faces a vision of an owl that he killed in a panic as a child - the only time, he insists, that he ever killed anything - it appears as a child patient's stuffed toy and as a costume constructed from medical paraphernalia. Silhouettes of Marceline, Missouri, and of a classic Disney castle are constructed of bottles, clipboards, and the like, a surgical lamp casting their shadows on suspended bedsheets.


Philip Glass is easily and unreasonably stereotyped as nothing but a peddler of arpeggios, based on his earliest work. There was more to him then, and there is much more to him now. Glass has developed a genuine "late style" that incorporates all those swirly arpeggios and repetitions in company with a restrained  but potent approach to melody (melody!) and an array of punctuation tricks in the percussion section. It is a richly whipped brew, riding long and dextrous rhythmic lines. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a solid ground over which to sing, allowing the audience to actually hear and decipher the words and the singers to deliver them with dramatic point. The chorus, out of keeping with the usual Glass approach, is positively folksy: they sing "happy birthday," they quack and hoot, and they sing comforting bromides about dreams coming true much as the choruses do in the classic Disney pastorals.


Disney's Lincoln automaton, resident at Disneyland for over 50 years, was originally created for the 1964 New York World's Fair, where it was the centerpiece of the pavilion of the State of Illinois. (The best thing in the Disney studio's otherwise misfiring Tomorrowland was its loving recreation of elements of the Fair.) Disney and his "Imagineers" provided animatronic creations to a total of four pavilions in 1964: Lincoln for Illinois, the "Carousel of Progress" for General Electric, dinosaurs and cavemen for Ford and, most inescapably, "It's a Small World" for Pepsi. Pepsi's Moppets of the World make no appearance in The Perfect American, but Walt compares himself favorably to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and Lincoln, as noted, looms large.

References to elements of Philip Glass's own past work are everywhere as well. Walt's love of trains, in particular, readily triggers memories of the trains in Einstein on the Beach; his yen to build things suggests Akhnaten; the collective, often mechanical effort on the part of animators, and the push against it, echo the tension between natural and mechanized worlds in Koyaanisqatsi; an owl appears prominently in Glass's portion of Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS, as does Lincoln,whose concern for equality and racial justice Glass returns to in the recently revised Appomattox (which one can hope will find its way to southern California someday soon). The Perfect American seems at times as interesting a survey of the composer's creative history as it is a survey of Disney's.


The character of Walt Disney is on stage from start to penultimate scene (and after that, receives in this production a charmingly homespun apotheosis, waving us goodnight in a manner recognizable to anyone who grew up on The Wonderful World of Color). Justin Ryan as Walt hits all the necessary notes, musically and dramatically, only occasionally veering toward overselling the part. He is persuasive as a driven and powerful man who would rather return, if he could, to a simpler world of his boyhood. As stalwart brother Roy, Zeffan Quinn Hollis is duly stalwart; at Sunday's premiere, he doubled up as the duly righteous voice of robo-Lincoln. Suzan Hanson as Lillian Disney brought to the part some of the grounded dignity she previously displayed as Marilyn Klinghoffer, particularly in the late scene when Walt's death from lung cancer is revealed as inevitable. Jamie Chamberlin, previously one of LBO's twin Marilyn Monroes, charmed as the fictitious Walt's personal nurse Hazel George, whom he addresses as "Snow White".*

Being as it is not the Big Opera Company in town, Long Beach Opera is only able to mount two performances of The Perfect American. The remaining date is Saturday, March 18, and tickets are certainly to be had. (These performances are in the cavernous Terrace Theater, so the number of potentially available seats is not small.) Let your conscience be your guide. It is whispering that you should go.


Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

*Correction: The original version of this post referred to Hazel George as a fiction. Assorted fact checkers, including the singer, have pointed out that Hazel George was very real and that she was a remarkable, if hidden, figure in Disney's creative life.

A Figure of Speech

A figure of speech4


The figure standing always on the beach

Even when there is no sand

Even when there is no sea

Even then there always is the beach

An even sheen of water without water

An even shine of sand    without sand

The line and the limit    always there the line and limit

The shifting line   the long withdrawing sigh    the boring advancing roar

This far no further no no no   no further no  no further

Futile     unavailing   still and all

And always still   so still   the figure stands



The figure standing always on the beach

Does not disturb a grain of the never present sand

Does not divert or shift a wave adventuring out of the never present sea

Does not assert a space on the ever present beach

No grain is moving nothing ever moves

No wave is breaking nothing ever breaks

The shift and the sheer  always suggested the shift and sheer

This slicing light   the spark and the kindling   the dim implicit flame

More light is need need needed   kneading light

Futile    unavailing   still and all

And always still  so still   the figure stands


The figure standing always on the beach

Informed by light takes nothing from the sand

Refined by shadow cares not for the shimmer of the sea

Above the beach the sky   the sky is a desert sky

Above the sky the clouds   the clouds are jungle clouds

Above the clouds the light     the light like words made light

A plane like paper     spread like parchment     clothing the limit

Sprinkling glints      brazen Klimtische gold    a span of flattened wrinkles

One sees these things by hearing them   by picturing pictures of words

Futile     unavailing   still and all

And always still   so still   the figure stands


And an absent unseen seer evocates

The figure standing always on the beach


[Photo (which is unconnected to the poem) by the blogger.]

© 2017 George M. Wallace; all rights reserved.



 [she says]


Hollow my bones

Inject them with air

Marrow once out, atmosphere fill me

With latticework socketed pockets of sky

Laced amid faceted boxes of calcium


Each wall translucent

Veined and accented

                                        paper thin agate

Skylight beneath an encircling sheath


Calcified, drift-white

                                        bored out

                                        burred clean

hollowed out zones

                                        Emptied and filled

Essence ineffable rudely infused

A plenum a vacuum awash with a way



Bonded to tendon to muscle to flesh and to

Skin under

Feathers and pinions


Clockwork and talons

Engaged or imagined

[she postulates rising]

                                        Rising is purpose

[she execrates falling]

                                        Falling is not possible

Each move beneath

directs itself up

to a still

             farther starting point

poised to plunge higher




[she says]


The earth and air were not made to be neighbors

Cast athwart one to the other smashed hastily


Lean into potent uncertain futurity

Push off on high on invisible potency

Riverine flow

Crystalline luxe





I spread I flap and I flail almost floating

A gasp then the chirping         

                                       songs and screams

A fall


                                       fleet and fleeing

Fascinated plummeting   

                                       alive and leaving….     


                                                Casting off

                                                Casting off

That caged and perching life

That human beastly scuttle

For this


                                        fleet and fleeing

                                        alive and leaving

                                        arc and contour


I will fly and I will rise

                                        until the darts strike home

[more she says not]


[Photo (unconnected to the poem) by the blogger.]

© 2017 George M. Wallace; all rights reserved.

The Watcher Watched

Spotted a spy who spotted a bird
Who spotted the bird-spotting spy

The spotted bird espied a spot
Where the spy could not see the bird he sought
The spy could not spot where the bird was not

In a birdless and unburdened sky



© 2016 George M. Wallace; all rights reserved.

Listening Listfully 2016


This blog is a sad thing these days, a walking shadow of its once sprightly self, a faded jaded mandarin, little trafficked, neglected by its proprietor. Over the length of 2016, I find that I have more unfinished drafts than actual posts. And yet, one—at the least, this one—might hold out hope that it may bestir itself again in time.

One tradition to which I yet cling is this: "Listening Listfully", my catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. This year, they number 50, but the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many recordings of quality omitted, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

Last year, I held out until New Year's Eve. For 2016, I am electing to post on the Eve of Christmas Eve, with the intention to follow on on Boxing Day with a 50-plus entry, properly threaded Tweetstorm on this fool's Twitter timeline. If I get truly ambitious, I will update this post to embed those tweets, and possibly to add further commentary. [Update 26 Dec 2016: The Tweetstorm broke as threatened and is now embedded at the end of this post.] In a break from recent practice, I have lumped everything into a single list, eschewing arbitrary genre boundaries. It is all just plain good music to these foolish ears.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 25 choices on the list. I am sufficiently old fashioned that I still prefer to buy and own music, rather than simply streaming it. I also prefer that as large a portion as possible of what I pay for music should make it into the hands of that music's makers. In consequence I find myself more than ever making use of Bandcamp, which advances both of those preferences more than passing well. Bandcamp-linked recordings on this list are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins the eleventh annual edition of The List: 

 1.    Julius Eastman - Femenine


2.    Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Real Enemies


3.    David Thomas Broughton - Crippling Lack


4.    David Bowie - Blackstar


5.    Psychic Temple - III


 6.    The Gloaming - 2


7.    Battle Trance - Blade of Love


8.    AHNONI - Hopelessness


9.    Shearwater - Shearwater Plays Lodger


10.    Morgan Guerin - The Saga


11.    Gabriel Kahane - The Fiction Issue


12.    The Lazy Lies - The Lazy Lies


13.    David T. Little - Dog Days

[I wrote about Dog Days here in 2015.]


14.    Qasim Naqvi - Chronology


15.   SheLoom - The Baron of the Fjord


16.    Howe Gelb - Future Standards


17.    Psychic Temple - Plays Music for Airports


18.    Nathaniel Bellows - The Old Illusions


19.    Niechęć - Niechęć


20.    William Brittelle - Dream Has No Sacrifice


21.    EH46 - Metropole des Anges

[First appearing in August, nearly all evidence of this exemplary ambient drone raga musing on southern California themes mysteriously "made itself air into which it vanished" from the online world earlier this month. Included here in the hope it may someday return among us.]


22.    Finnegan Shanahan, Contemporaneous - The Two Halves


23.    Daniel Lanois - Goodbye to Language


24.    Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota - Keep In Touch


25.    Vanishing Twin - Choose Your Own Adventure


26.    Gabriel Kahane & the Knights - Crane Palimpsest


27.    R. Andrew Lee - Adrian Knight: Obsessions


28.    The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome


29.    Sabina Meck - Love is Here


30.    La Femme d'Argent - La Femme d'Argent


31.    Roomful of Teeth, inter alia - The Colorado: Music from the Motion Picture


32.    Jherek Bischoff - Cistern


33.    Bill Nelson - New Northern Dream


34.    Andy Shauf - The Party


35.    The Living Earth Show - Dance Music


36.    Eleanore Oppenheim - Home


37.    Jeremy Flower - The Real Me


38.    Still Corners - Dead Blue


39.    C Duncan - The Midnight Sun


40.    Timo Andres & Gabriel Kahane - Dream Job


41.    Bonjour - Bonjour


42.    Nico Muhly & Valgeir Sigurðsson - Scent Opera


43.    The Industry, wildUp - The Edge of Forever

[I wrote about The Edge of Forever previously, here.]


44.    Michael Mizrahi - Currents


45.    Chris Kallmyer, inter alia - Rhyolite


46.    Rational Discourse - Live at the Mothlight


47.    Los Angeles Opera - Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles

[I wrote about this production in 2015, here.]


48.    Magik*Magik - Magik*Magik


49.    Steve Jansen - Tender Extinction


50.    Field Music - Commontime



On paper, this list rolls on beyond 50. Many of those Honorable but Unmentioned recordings can be found in my Bandcamp collection, here.]


The Boxing Day Tweetstorm [clicking on the embedded initial tweet below should lead to Twitter and the complete 51-entry collection]:

Tempted by the Fruit of an Author
[Four Larks: The Temptation of St. Anthony]

Foray dans les forêts de symboles

 O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.

— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Infinite space in a nutshell is a cogent metaphor for what the creative performative collective Four Larks offers in The Temptation of St. Anthony, scheduled to run through October 2 at [a secret location revealed to ticket holders] in downtown Los Angeles. The Temptation is as all-consuming in its concerns, and as vivid and innovative in its theatrical gestures, as Einstein on the Beach, but compresses it all into a mere 75 minutes, with a dozen performers, a set and properties scavenged and cobbled together from heaven knows where, and in a space that would not fill an Einsteinian caboose. It is a mighty microcosmos.

The intense compaction of The Temptation of St. Anthony is perhaps a tribute to its origins in Gustave Flaubert's novella. Flaubert spent nearly half his life writing the book, each successive version etched and edited to remove everything he determined to be inessential. His first draft ran well over 500 pages. Some two-thirds of that disappeared in the second draft, and so on until the page count of the final version barely topped 100. It is nearly devoid of external plot, but tells of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356) who, after many years of living the life of a holy hermit in the desert (atop a cliff, where "an aged and twisted palm tree leans over the abyss") is beset one night by doubt-driven visions designed to draw him from his holy path: the Seven Deadly Sins appear, and a series of rulers (Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba), heretics, mages, scientists, pagan gods and philosophers descend upon him. At daybreak, he emerges tested and recommitted to his faith, resuming his pious life. The incident was long a favorite of painters, as it provided an opportunity to depict lewdness and grotesquerie under the guise of spiritual teaching. Flaubert's depiction is far more austere and inward looking. (For lewdness and grotesquerie in Flaubert, the reader is advised to consider his epic depiction of same in Salammbô.)

A magic number

Four Larks describes itself as an artist operated collective, founded and guided by Artistic Director Mat Diafos Sweeney (also the adaptor/writer/composer of The Temptation, with lyrics by Jesse Rasmussen) and Creative Producer (and principal Temptation designer) Sebastian Peters-Lazaro. "Junkyard opera" is the portmanteau description for the Larks' body of work. The Temptation is described as "a euphotic rite of music, dance and visual theatre." It is less an opera or play than it is a pageant or, most accurately perhaps, a contemporary masque. Instead of in a palace or chateau, however, The Temptation plays out inside a seemingly shuttered one time wholesale floral facility a few blocks from the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

As a courtly masque might include elaborate constructions depicting the provinces of gods or a nymphean retreat, Four Larks has devised a mystic cave environment of its own, filling its chosen space far, wide, high, and low, with books, abandoned and outmoded communications devices, artistic detritus, faux ruins, and a myriad of uncategorizable objects of all sorts, all colored a desert-blasted off white. On arrival, members of the audience can explore the eccentric desolation, perhaps with a refreshment in hand. At performance time, they are ushered into the comparably be-cluttered performance room. At the front of the floor level stage area, The Hermit (Max Baumgarten) is already present. His thick and sand dappled Bible beside him, he is focused intently on a battered manual typewriter, hard at work on what proves to be the text of The Temptation of St. Anthony.


In form, Flaubert's Temptation resembles a drama more than it does any traditional 19th Century novel. Considered as a play, The Temptation can be tied to the symbolic and nocturnal experimentalism of Strindberg's A Dream Play or Ibsen's Peer Gynt (which Four Larks took on during a period its founders spent in Melbourne, Australia). As a working premise, the conflation of the writer, the work he is writing, and the events within the work he is writing handily throws open the door to the free flowing, ambiguous shape shifting free for all that ensues.

The Temptation begins with an authorial voiceover, speaking the introductory description of the hermit and his hermitage as it is typed, but the creator is soon absorbed by the creation as the visions and manifestations come thick and fast. For much of its later stretches, The Temptation's chief speaker is not The Hermit but the dreamt version of his one time follower Hilarion (Caitlin Conlin), whose evening attire and sprightly wickedness of manner may recall the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret. Figures historical and symbolic emerge and disappear with the rapidity of shuffled cards. Ideas and arguments fly about at breakneck speed. The Hermit is caromed about in a mazy concatenation of movement, music, light, speech, sound and surprise, emerging (as perhaps he had not expected) back at the place he began, his typewriter the still point in an uncertainly resettled world. He is left, as is his audience, to reflect upon—or more likely simply to muse and to marvel over—whatever it was that has just happened to him. As one does, when what has happened is something of a wonderment. The Temptation of St. Anthony is a wonderment like no other in recent memory, and not to be missed or resisted.

The revels now are ended


The Temptation of St. Anthony is currently scheduled through October 2, 2016. Capacity is modest and some performances are sold out. Such tickets as may be had may be sought here.

The blogger attended the September 8 performance of The Temptation of St. Anthony as a paying customer.

Photos above (l'espace) by the blogger. Photos below (les artistes) by Michael Amica, used by kind permission of Four Larks.


<<Voulez-Vous Ruscha Avec Moi?>>




The original of this photograph was shot, upon emerging from the room to which it pertains, at the tail end of the evening intermission at the Hollywood Pantages Theater on the 25th of June, 2016. The show on offer was Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. It was a most enjoyable evening, really, in the company of my life's companion and favorite person, to whom I will have been wed 30 years at the end of August, thank you very much. She would disapprove this post, because it is silly.

I posted a version of the photo on Instagram as intermission was ending. I later returned to it, fiddled about with it, particularly as to color and negative/positive trickery, and found the results amusing. The large single word and the variant colorings began to remind me of the work of Ed Ruscha, so I post some of them here as a thoroughly lowbrow tribute to him.


Invisible Synchronicities
[The Industry Records presents
The Edge of Forever]

The Forever on the Edge of a City

Enterprising Los Angeles new-opera company The Industry specializes in productions in expansive and unexpected places: in and around a working rail terminal for Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities, a fleet of moving limousines around the city for Hopscotch. The Industry also operates a recording imprint, and on Friday evening hosted an event on the occasion of its second release, The Edge of Forever, composed by Lewis Pesacov on a libretto by Elizabeth Cline (also The Industry's Executive Director).

The Edge of Forever is a sort of ultimate pièce d'occasion, intended to be performed only once, on a precise date and at a precise time, portraying events that are themselves occurring at that precise moment, though they have been foreordained to happen for millennia. The date in question was (in local Los Angeles reckoning) the 21st day of December, 2012, the final day of the 5,126 "long count" as reckoned by the Mayan calendar, on which occasion either the world was to end, or else a new and renewed world was to begin. The single performance occurred in the Mayan-revival spaces of the Philosophical Research Society, in the Los Feliz district. The recording documents that performance. Three of the opera's five scenes are represented by a live recording from the event, while the first and last scenes are later studio recreations including multitracked vocal parts.

As performed and recorded, The Edge of Forever is incomplete, representing only the final act of a three-act opera. The first two acts take place, or took place (in local Los Angeles reckoning) on the 13th day of March in the year 830. On that date, the first day of the tenth of thirteen cycles comprising the long count, the ancient Mayan astronomer Laakan was granted insight by the gods: he must descend into the cenote, or ceremonial cavern, there to wait out the years until the end of the thirteenth and final cycle, when he will achieve unity with the beloved one, Etznab, at the moment of the world's renewal. The performance of the third act in 2012 thus took place following the longest intermission in operatic history: 1182 years.

Ashley Faatoalia and, looking relaxed, Richard Valitutto on oscillatorsThat final act, as it comes to us now, begins as did the first so long ago, with a procession of scribes, all four sung on the recording by Abby Fischer with an exuberant and often birdlike tintinnabulist ululation. Laakon (tenor Ashley Faatoalia, Marco Polo in Invisible Cities) emerges from meditation and sacred slumber, describes what a long and often despairing wait it has been, praises and embraces the wisdom of what the gods foretold and ordained, and achieves an apotheosis of sorts with the long promised (albeit unheard and unseen) beloved. After such a prolonged caesura, the act itself lasts roughly 38 minutes.

Ritual and enlightenment, not plot action, are the order of the day. Musically, the extant parts of the work build over rich drones and an array of bells, chimes, and other long-resonating percussion. Laakon's exaltation in the final scene aspires most satisfactorily, and without any obvious Wagnerian allusions, to achieve a Tristan-like sense of endless rising.

The non-singing musicians of The Edge of Forever, in 2012 and on the recording, are members of wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree. To open the release event, Rountree and a subset of those players performed another Lewis Pesacov piece: an instruction-based work also for bells and chimes and suchlike long-sustaining vibration producers, the performers singing wordless harmonics triggered by the sound of one other's instruments, the whole eventually subsiding to breath and a long sustained meditative silence. From The Edge of Forever itself, the release audience heard the recorded version of the first scene, in a highly effective surround mix, and a similarly effective live performance of the final scene.

The Industry recording is being released principally on vinyl, with texts and inserts and packaging harking to the former era of deluxe opera albums. (In his comments at the release, Lewis Pesacov had fond reminiscences of growing up perusing his parents' old opera boxed sets.) The Edge of Forever is also available for download in multiple digital formats via Bandcamp.

The Edge of Forever - front cover~~~

The June 24, 2016, release event was held at warehouse-turned-arts-space, 356 Mission, and was free to all. The blogger earlier received an advance promotional copy of The Edge of Forever on CD [rare and collectible, perhaps, given that the actual release is only vinyl and digital] through the good offices of The Industry's publicists at DOTDOTDOTMUSIC. Photos, other than the album cover, are by the blogger, from the release event.

The Naked and the Dead
[David Lang: anatomy theater]

  Anatomy theater 2

I asked myself if it were credible that [Evil as] a cosmic force of the sort postulated by Averaud could really exist; or, granting its existence, could be evoked by any man through the absurd intermediation of a musical device.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Devotee of Evil” (1933)

I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.

— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Press and publicity for the world premiere of David Lang's new anatomy theater—being a Lang piece, it arrives with neither a definite article nor capitalization—have emphasized its most lurid qualities: A live hanging! A singing-stark-naked-mezzo corpse eviscerated before your eyes! Vitals, and vital bodily fluids, galore! The Guardian asks: is it "the goriest opera ever?" Perhaps it is. But at the opening performance Thursday evening the grisly entrails, the leering grotequeries, the uncomfortable voyeurism, and the general awfulness of the characters were largely beside the point. Despite being as nasty as promised in its particulars, the larger experience of anatomy theater is unexpectedly humane and cathartic. The gore is a McGuffin.

Working with a libretto co-written with artist Mark Dion, Lang's opera follows the final hours, living and dead, of Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell) in 18th century London. The performance begins outside of the auditorium, with the public spectacle (replete with sausages and beer) of Osborne's hanging for the murder of her abusive husband and her two small children. Before the noose is applied, she delivers her confession to the crowd, narrating a life of sexual abuse, street living, prostitution, drunkenness and misery. The execution accomplished, the executioner removes his hood to reveal himself as one Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), proprietor of the nearby establishment at which the murderess's corpse ("still warm!" he promises with a smirk) will be publicly dissected. The spectators are ushered to their seats and the demonstration begins.

Anatomy theater 1

Crouch continues as the acidly smiling host of the proceedings, making little secret of the contempt he holds for the "young gentlemen" who have entered his theater or his pleasure at parting them from their money. So many supposed physicians, scientists, artists, he marvels, here to closely observe an attractive young woman (a smack of the lips) laid open as open can be. And adding to the specialness and high purpose of the occasion, a celebrity anatomist will be in charge: the renowned Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), on whose behalf the actual dismantlement of the body will be performed by his assistant, Mr. Strang (Timur).

Baron Peel is more moralist than scientist: he knows what he expects, nay! is certain, to find even before he sets to looking for it. He will demonstrate to us all that the evil nature of Sarah Osborne, and the judgment of the Almighty upon her, are reflected tangibly in the condition of her internal organs. He cannot be sure where exactly evil lies, but its physical presence will be revealed, for the expansion of Knowledge and the greater glory of God, or at least of Baron Peel as God's minister on earth.

anatomy theater is concerned with that question of evil, its nature, and where and how it may be revealed, removed, or understood. It has on its mind as well the question of power: Baron Peel holds power over everyone in the room by virtue of his place as a peer, high on a rigorously unbending apparatus of class. All of the other characters have power over Sarah Osborne because she has no present ability to argue otherwise, and because she never really did: the power, recurringly misused, of men over women is a given in Sarah Osborne's world, and her having acted brutally to protest and thwart it is the very thing that has brought her to her death. While these men seek to find corruption in the body of Sarah Osborne, they demonstrate by the very casualness, even jollity, with which they disdain her life and humanity that their power is itself corrupt.

With the aid of uncomfortably persuasive practical stage effects, the body of Sarah Osborne is cut open and the organs removed one by one. The initial incision produces a seemingly endless skein of intestines, cast aside immediately as of no scientific interest. The process continues as first the stomach, then the spleen, then the heart, and finally the uterus is extracted and carefully measured and described to the Baron by Mr. Strang. To the Baron's growing annoyance, each organ proves to be healthy and without apparent flaw. None shows any sign that it has housed any ill, let alone been the home to heinous evil. At the last, the Baron assures his audience that the search has not been fruitless, for we have conclusively established "where evil is not" in this woman. Perhaps it is in the soul that one might find it. He bids good night, and Crouch ushers the audience out with an invitation to meet him at the rear door should any wish to purchase any of the remaining portions of the body for (heh heh) further study at home. 

If, apart from squeamishness or repulsion at the visceral effects, a viewer is left feeling icky and uncomfortable, it may well be the result of participating in a voyeuristic exercise, as the principal voyeur. Crouch repeatedly reminds the viewer that he (all would have been "he" in keeping with the period setting) has paid handsomely to enter and to look and look and look, inside and out, at this entirely defenseless human woman. Peabody Southwell, as Sarah, lies upon the table, motionless and entirely naked for most of the proceedings. Each member of the audience is in some way complicit in that reduction. 

For all that, the end result of anatomy theater is not reductive. It is, rather, almost hopeful, reminding its discomfited witnesses that ugliness and cruelty are ever present, but that they are not all there is to human life. Beauty, decency, and aspiration to being better and kinder can be found and are worth seeking after. In the particular case of anatomy theater, skill and beauty in the creation of the piece and skill and beauty in its performance serve as the carrier waves for that more comforting view.

The singing and character work of the four onstage performers is exemplary. Sarah Osborne is provided two singular arias, one on each side of her death. In the prologue outside the theater, she gives her confession before execution, telling the story of her life and the conditions that led her to suffocate her husband and infants. Peabody Southwell presents it with mesmerizing directness, nuance, and intimacy, such that the body next seen on the dissection table is not that of a stranger. Midway through that dissection, Sarah Osborne sings again, her song consisting largely of the repeated phrase "My heart." That organ is on the side table with Mr. Strang, who has just reported its unblemished quality and been instructed to seek further after evil, in the womb. Fast approaching literal disembodiment, Sarah Osborne evokes the heart's intangible qualities, the capacity and wish for love, and the natural good she stored there through a pain-filled life. While evil may lie somewhere close by, its antithesis is also near in that moment.

Anatomy theater 3

Each of the singing actors surrounding Peabody Southwell is as strong in his way as she. Marc Kudisch's Crouch is part carnival barker, part entrepreneur, part back-alley porn peddlar, with a dollop of 50's horror-comic undertaker for spice. Crouch is a horrible person, he despises humankind, but a fellow has to make a living, so he provides ample entertainment in his flamboyant person. anatomy theater incorporates a fair amount of bleak and perverse humor, most of it emanating from the dreadful Mr. Crouch. As Baron Peel, Robert Osborne is called upon to be straight and narrow at all times, the embodiment of self-important seriousness and authority. Osborne gives Peel's declamations a from-the-pulpit quality that suits him well. Mr. Strang, meanwhile, is the closest the piece comes to a male character with any redeeming qualities. He provides the physical labor to take Sarah Osborne apart, without seeming to take any unwholesome pleasure in it, and reports his findings as to each organ earnestly, affirming strongly that he can discover nothing wrong with nor any sign of evil in any of them. Timur presents him as something of a skilled and intelligent innocent, not ultimately convinced of Baron Peel's "evil is here" premise. (Timur deserves extra credit, as well, as he seems to be charged with actually triggering and applying the sanguinary effects that so vividly disembowel the late Sarah Osborne.)

Where goodness truly lies in anatomy theater is in David Lang's score. For the most part, even in the martial tattoo accompanying the confession and execution, Lang has made use of the tools he has developed in recent years in works such as the Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion and death speaks—the latter much admired by this blogger. Texts are set over semi-repeating cells of melodic material, the melodies never seeming to move outside a limited range in any given sequence, but gaining momentum and motion by accretion atop and beside one another. The result is what could be described as a highly textured flatness, as when in an abstract or minimalist painting a seemingly unvaried color surface is revealed to have been worked with exacting precision at its finest level, discoverable only upon closest inspection. As a musical method, it proves highly effective at creating an underlying ethereal ache or melancholic and untethered yearning, moving without seeming to move. Around and about, Lang has distributed sections in a style that somehow combines opera seria with the smoky acidity of Weill setting Brecht. (The period nature of the piece and the presence of an accordion in martial tattoo accompanying it gives the execution, apart from Sarah's confession, a hint of the famous near-hanging of MacHeath in The Beggar's and/or Threepenny Opera.) The score is performed with rigor and vigor and, yes, ample heart by members of the wild Up collective, conducted with his usual energy and commitment by Christopher Rountree. 


anatomy theater is premiering as part of Los Angeles Opera's "Off Grand" initiative in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects. Performances are in the lobby and theater at REDCAT, beneath Walt Disney Concert Hall. The final performance of the run is Monday, June 20. Procuring tickets may be in the realm of the possible but at this point is, more likely than not, not. Perhaps another time.

The beer being served at the execution was a delicious Milk Thistle Stout created by Solarc Brewing, the fine craft beer maker co-founded by Archie Carey, bassoonist with wild Up. There is no bassoon in anatomy theater nor, so far as I know, in the beer.

Photos: Craig T. Mathew, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended the opening performance of anatomy theater as a paying customer. He was offered and accepted free beer and sausage prior to the performance, but that was on offer to all.