Modernity in art has been with us for 150 years now, since Baudelaire coined the term on the boulevards of Paris, and over that time one of its hallmarks has been to compel its audience to look at what is right before our unillusioned eyes. Making it real is as important to the Modern as making it new. Baudelaire, for his part, infamously lavished a surface layer of lyrical poetry on the description of a maggot-ridden corpse stumbled upon during a bucolic afternoon stroll, concluding his description by reminding his companion, in essence, "That'll be you someday, sugar." As the poet and his companion observe the carcass, a dog lingers nearby, grumpily awaiting their departure and the opportunity to return to its interrupted meal.
That Modern impulse is shudderingly in play in Dog Days, the opera composed by David T. Little on a libretto by Royce Vavrek (adapting a story by Judy Budnitz), which received its West Coast premiere on Thursday evening at REDCAT as the first of Los Angeles Opera's "Off Grand" presentations in conjunction with New York-based Beth Morrison Projects. Also in the mix: pity and terror, those mainstays of classical/Aristotelean tragedy, and some post-Modern subversion of some of the central tropes of mainstream Opera. In combination with highly skilled of-the-moment vocal writing and precise, frightfully committed performances from its core cast, Dog Days is music drama of cathartic, assaultive potency.
The events of Dog Days take place in middle America, in a time just over the horizon. Things have fallen apart. There is a War on. The nature of the enemy is never stated, and it is entirely possible that its origins are sectarian and domestic. Martial law and strict curfews have been imposed. Famine has taken hold. While many have moved out and headed East to possibly better circumstances, a family of five—parents, with two sons in their late teens or very early twenties, and a 13-year old daughter, Lisa—continues on in their home, surviving initially on air-dropped Army rations and such other food as the father, Howard, is able to hunt or forage. The action moves from sweltering summer, with food and societal support already scarce, through autumn and into bleak winter, by which time the rations have stopped coming (the military seems to regard the family as a nuisance at best), and all the potentially edible animals, even insects, have vanished. The family's trajectory is relentlessly downbound from the start, and everything ultimately shivers to fragments.
There is also a man in a dog suit. This is all that is ever known of him. He is a man in a dog suit, behaving in every way as a dog. He appears in the yard in the prologue, the Mother taking him for a real dog while Lisa insists he is a man in a costume. Lisa eventually befriends him, as one would a dog, and begins slipping small portions of food in his direction. She names him Prince. He is central to one (or perhaps both?) of the opera's paired, dreadful endings. [Spoilers omitted.]
Royce Vavrek's libretto presents the characters coldly, but without disdain. The women's parts are particularly well formed. Lisa is fully imagined, whether discussing the nature of the dog-man, ruminating on "what is normal", writing unsendable letters to her friend Marjorie in the East, or imagining/pretending that her starving frame in the mirror resembles that of a supermodel. The Mother (whose given name we never learn) maintains a surface of calm and domestic habit, broken by outbursts of terror, as when her legs simply refuse to take her to bed. The men's roles—profanity drenched, as might be expected of characters under such dire stresses—are not quite so rounded. The sons' parts in particular float close to caricatures of the worst sort basement-dwelling slackers. Howard, self-identifying as an ineffectual patriarch, resembles Willie Loman reimagined with a strain of hair-trigger manliness out of Sam Shepard.
David T. Little's score ends in an extended thundering miasma of noise, electrical hum and pounding percussion. Before it blasts itself apart, however, it features slithering strings, jittery winds, some lovely retro-choral writing for scenes around the dinner table, and a canny way with a vocal line that is particularly effective (again) in the case of Lisa and her Mother. The set piece arias are, if not exactly hummable, also not unacquainted with attractive and melancholy melody. The score is performed with grit, focus and commitment by an extended version of the composer's Newspeak ensemble, under the direction of Alan Pierson.
It would be difficult to imagine a more fully invested or persuasive performance of the role of Lisa than is provided by Lauren Worsham. The wordless, near silent role of the man in the dog suit is inhabited—there is no other word for it—by performance artist John Kelly, who moves, reacts and likely thinks exactly as a good natured, hungry, man-sized dog would do. The most pristine singing, among the grime and collapse, comes from Marnie Breckenridge, whose Mother brings a reservoir of untapped nobility to insufferable circumstances. James Bobick bellows manfully as Howard. The unpleasant young men in the basement are Peter Tantsits and Michael Marcotte. Cherry Duke appears briefly, well armed and menacingly officious, as a passing Army captain, returning the sons from a ramble through the neighboring homes of the dead. The entire cast has been with the production since its 2012 New Jersey premiere.
Dog Days is, after a fashion, a brutal IMAX version of the picturesque Death that is at the core of so much of the beloved Standard Opera Repertoire. It is an anti-Bohème, stripping off all of the gauzy soft focus romance with which Mimi's passing is suffused, or a counter-Tristan. (Lisa is ultimately allowed a sort of kitchen-table liebestod, albeit one without words or transcendence.) It is an infernal Modern contraption, three seasons in Hell if you will, from which we nevertheless should not turn away our eyes or ears.
Photos: Greg Grudt/Matthew Imaging, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.
Dog Days continues with performances through next Monday, June 15, at REDCAT, beneath the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The blogger attended the opening night performance as a paying member of the opera-going public, as the blogger is wont to do.