“Experiments in Opera” offers inspired moments amid the misfires

Thu Apr 02, 2015 at 11:44 am

Nick Hallett's "To Music [Scene 1]" was performed by Experiments in Opera Wednesday night at Roulette.

Nick Hallett’s “To Music [Scene 1]” was performed by Experiments in Opera Wednesday night at Roulette.

The three composers collectively known as Experiments in Opera are undertaking the biggest production of their five-year association this week. Recent projects have included a jointly composed re-imagining of the Sisyphus myth and an evening of seasonally appropriate Halloween operettas.

Now, Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel and Matthew Welch are mounting seven new works over two consecutive nights at Roulette. The short run, under the banner “Story Binge,” kicked off Wednesday with premieres of works by Welch, Sam Hillmer (leader of the remarkable band Zs) and Nick Hallett (music director of the Joshua Light Show).

The night began with Hillmer’s That Was Soon, and That Was the Web This is Going to Be. In the composer’s video introduction, he describes the work as an attempt to submerge wholly into the psyche of a protagonist—in this case, a perplexing melange of electronic drones, clicks, white noise, and altered voices (the primary one sounding like Apple’s Siri). There is also sign language interpretation before a projection of a digitally animated jungle.

If singing is a requisite for opera, it was present in a sort of subway-gospel aria by a male tenor. The rest was a descent into a cacophonous mind, a demon seeding and harvesting paranoia. The dense soundscape made following what story there might have been difficult; words and phrases such as “frenemies,” “YouTube” and “take a shower” pushed through the din. Still, non-linear narrative has been a hallmark of contemporary opera since Robert Ashley reclaimed the term for the mass-media age some fifty years ago. Hillmer created a convincing, if largely impenetrable, reality.

Welch’s And Here We Are followed, a more overtly sentimental path based on the memoirs of the composer’s great uncle, an opera singer imprisoned in the wartime Philippines. The piece circled with a jazzy flair provided by the small ensemble (trumpet, piano, vibraphone, bass guitar and drums, conducted by the composer). Baritone and librettist Daniel Neer intoned reminiscences of Welch’s elder in a half-spoken vibrato. Reflections of a life’s hardships, joys and yearning were pushed by an ever-modulating piano and round-robin repetitions moving across the band. The music ascended and descended, always moving while refusing to mold to the emotional impulses of the fragmented story.

Hallett’s To Music [Scene 1] was the most linear and the most engaging work of the night – and was, in fact, the only one to get more than one distinct character on the stage. The work delivered a cynical comedic view of contemporary music, taking as its hero a film soundtrack composer in a state of post-awards-show, self-inflicted agony and including a contrived hit song by an imagined pop band. The tale was told in part by means of email messages and social network interactions (projected on screen) and cell phone interruptions, with a rather lonely happy ending in the form of a blossoming instant-message romance.

Peter Alex Stewart was marvelous as the protagonist, glowering at his laptop while a trio of violin, viola and piano alternately supported the dialogues and online communication. Hallett, who also appeared as the composer’s attorney, craftily worked ringtones into the score and scripted a glitching and stalling streaming internet ad for soprano Amelia Watkins.

“Story Binge” continues 8 p.m. Thursday at Roulette with works by Cady and Siegel, singer Gelsey Bell (thingNY, Varispeed) and, rather unexpectedly, Roddy Bottum of the ’90s rock band Faith No More. experimentsinopera.com

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