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"_____", An Opera

In his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde opined that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life," thus turning Aristotle on his head. In this performance, which combines elements of opera, theatre, and improvisational music, Ethelyn Friend (libretto and creator) and Gary Grundei (music) blur the lines between life and art in such a way as to confirm that it is only our level of consciousness which indicates whether there is any subjective difference between the Life and Art.

Indeed, in this production, even the audience is involved, to a degree, in the gestalt, further blurring the distinction. Before entering the performance space, consisting of two rooms in a house in Lafayette, The House Manager (Cynthia Ward) gives each audience member a program box containing:

House in an egg.
House in an egg.
  • A card with the opera's blank title and the text, "The opera is in a house. The house is an egg. The egg sings.", all of which frames a picture of the house in the egg.
  • A bell or a flashlight (to be used at the viewers' discretion).
  • A candle.
  • A ballot on which to vote for the name of the opera before you have seen it.
  • A scroll, on which is printed a synopsis of the opera, character descriptions, the family tree, a segment of the script describing Paris during WWI, the sea chanty from the script, and the writer's notes on the playwrighting process.

Each audience member chooses the title (and, thus, the point-of-view) of the opera he or she is about to see, and then, suspending disbelief and granting poet license, enters the house, which is an egg that sings. Essentially, the audience is entering the playwright's brain, which symbolically and metaphorically reveals its memories of family trauma, including incest.

(Left to right) Erica Terpening-Romeo as Madigan<br>and Allison Caw as The Egg
(L to R) Erica Terpening-Romeo as Madigan
and Allison Caw as The Egg
It is a Wednesday, in 1922, in a West Village brownstone on an iceberg frozen into the banks of the Hudson River, across from the lighthouse, in Pirate Jenny's mind. Pirate Jenny (Jessica Cerullo)—based on the character from Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera; her song, sung by Kurt Weill's (the composer) wife, actress Lotte Lenya is here; Judy Collins' version is here)—is attempting to clean her burnt toast; the Black Leather Armchair (Gary Grundei) is at the piano, riffing in the moment; extended scale operatic pitches, particularly from the Wooden Egg (Allison Caw) provide atmospherics; the writer enters and examines these figments of her mind—her palette—making a tactile connection with each, as well as with other random objects d'art, each representing a different memory.

Ethelyn Friend
Ethelyn Friend
As The Writer (Ethelyn Friend) describes all of this: "She imagines her therapeutic breakthrough and plans to write an avant-garde opera about it." As Friend notes elsewhere, "In both form and content, the opera explores the shared effects of family trauma including incest. Our performance is envisioned as both a vital performance event and a return to the source of theatre as a vehicle of catharsis." The tragic events of her life and the sorrow that she seeks to release are embedded in the characters:

The Lighthouse Keeper is Pirate Jenny's father. Pirate Jenny is Madigan's (Erica Terpening) missing mother. The Lighthouse Keeper is Madigan's grandfather. The Lighthouse Keeper is Madigan's father.

In addition, Carl Jung and Bertoldt Brecht's Brain define and facilitate the process:

BRECHT'S BRAIN:
Almost any conceivable tragedy situated
within the framework of the family ...

together with all the crimes involved therein
can be justified (dramatically exploited)
By its consolidation of the family as an institution
In that it accepts the latter's possibility as pre-ordained
and concentrates entirely
on the martyrdoms which it entails.

Any dramatist attempting to raise the question of its preordination
Had better look out however.
He is a crow feeding on crow's eyes. ...

A decently made play
demands a smoothly functioning digestion
Which should even tackle stones
That's to say the air must be clear
The washing up must have been done

As the House Manager explains, Brecht employed Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation effect, which "proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action. They must not sit back and feel, but sit forward and think. He wanted his audiences to recognize social injustice and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change."

Or, as Brecht's Brain (Barrett Ogden) puts it, "The audience is always reminded that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself."

Rather, the performance combines innovations in artistic and therapeutic practice to produce the intended catharthis; that is, release from trauma, much as the script describes it:

BRECHT'S BRAIN (composes and sings the following poem):
The dial of war turns forever
Infinity of the dragon's mouth
Incest uproots the family tree
A set of eggs left looking for a nest
(Brecht's Brain starts to draw a family tree on the mirror.)

BRECHTíS BRAIN:
Rape of the child equals spiritual erasure.

THE WRITER:
Not yet.

BRECHTíS BRAIN:
Sexuality, being synonymous with the creative life force, being used in this way by force and for anotherís dark (unconscious) uncontrolled (addictive) fulfillment (creative gain) creates misalignment in the tree of life (family tree)--

THE WRITER:
Delete.

The Writer seeks to both delete the memory and share it:

THE WRITER:
An opera. Based on real events. One day a writer recovers a memory of incest and tries to hide it inside an opera. ...

Rape of the child equals Spiritual Erasure. The core sense of being, or autonomous joy in existence, is deleted. Pirate Jenny, at the moment of violation, was deleted from both Mrs. Harrigan's and Madigan's memory and ceased to exist as herself, to herself. Jenny is a refugee, always fleeing and in disguise to herself and all around her. the family tree grows crooked. the planets freeze in their orbits and can only realign by divine intervention.

The intervention comes in the form of witnesses (the audience), who light candles and hold space within the cathartic moment, while the characters, the facets of The Writer's soul, shed their pain through "shared weeping":

THE WRITER:
... The meaning of the play? To force a kind of weeping. Is it a shared weeping? Yes and no. Not shared by everyone but heard by all. Singing is, after all, a kind of weeping.

Where was I born and where was I lost
When was I tossed to the edge of this coast
The cause, the cause, oh it is the cause
And what was the cost, the cost?
And what was the cost, the cost?
Leave me to the mercy of the sea, my love
The master of sand has departed
And with my sisters I'll weep without end
in the bend of my slow motion heart
In the bend of my slow motion heart

The performance is filled with excellent work from the ensemble, who follow a written libretto while adapting their vocal atmospherics to the improvisations of Grundei's piano. The vocals, reminiscent of Chinese opera, are based on the practice of "extended voice," from the teachings of Roy Hart and his company, of which Friend has been a member for 25 years. While Brecht's influence on Friend's script is evident throughout the piece, the style, as Friend describes it and as directed by Terpening-Romeo, is magical realism, with the actors fluidly transitioning between the real and the ephermeral.

Catharsis, which has been recognized as the sine qua non of ritualistic healing via theatre as far back as Aristotle, plays out in a very personal way here—for the actors and the playwright—as the characters represent memories of real people, as well as aspects of The Writer's psyche, all of which the actors and the audience work to dispell, and end the power of these repressions to distract from being in the moment.

The Singing House Productions' world premiere of "_____", An Opera, by Ethelyn Friend, runs through June 10th. For tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com.

Bob Bows



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