The new band gets to the human heart of Ashley’s “Improvement”

Fri Feb 08, 2019 at 2:12 pm
Robert Ashley's "Improvement" was performed at The Kitchen Thursday night.

Robert Ashley’s “Improvement” was performed at The Kitchen Thursday night.

Robert Ashley’s Improvement was not intended for a live audience; it was made as an audio recording for Nonesuch Records in the early 1990s. But Ashley’s operas are relatively easy to stage, and a production needs little more than chairs, tables, and a PA system. Everything depends on what Ashley composed and how well it’s performed.

The original artists on the recording—Jacqueline Humbert, Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, Amy X Neuberg, Adam Kline, Marghreta Cordero—were essential collaborators. Like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Ashley needed to gather his own group of musicians to realize his ideas. And his ideas were so radical that he needed an entirely different kind of performer—one unique enough that there was no guarantee Ashley’s work would survive on anything other than recordings once his original ensemble passed on.

But now what is colloquially known as the “old band” has been replaced by a younger “new band,” made up of composers and performers who populate the ensembles thingNY and Varispeed. They have dedicated themselves to Ashley’s work, even so far as to premiere his posthumous Crash in 2014.

On Thursday night, six of these artists opened a new production of Improvement at the Kitchen. The performance not only cemented the feeling that Ashley’s work is in good hands, but was so fine as to leave one feeling that the new band has superseded even the enormous achievements of the old one—opening new doorways of how to think about and experience Ashley’s operas.

The cast Thursday was Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Aliza Simons, Dave Ruder, and Amirtha Kidambi, with Ashley’s voice heard as the Narrator in the electronic orchestra realized by Tom Hamilton. Improvement is subtitled “Don Leaves Linda,” and is the first of a tetralogy Ashley called Now Eleanor’s Idea. It’s Ashley’s Das Rheingold, a stand-alone work that introduces a larger narrative.

Improvement begins with Don (McCorkle) leaving his wife Linda (Bell) for another woman, Now Eleanor (Simons) by the roadside. After a conversation with an airline ticket agent, Don leaves the scene, and the opera becomes an exploration of Linda’s life. Ashley’s method has the vocalists mixing conversational and intoned speech with pithy melodies and ensemble harmonies, timed scrupulously to the audio track.

The libretto mixes time frames. In the present, Linda is picked up by a family in a van who take her to the airport, she has a relationship with Mr. Payne (McCorkle, doubling roles like most of the cast) which she both experiences in the moment and remembers. She talks about her nutrition (a combination of mostly black coffee, nicotine, toast, and “marijuana cigarettes”), she reads a letter from her son, Junior Jr. (Pinto, using a silvery, shapely falsetto) to her bridge-playing companions.

As underground comic writer Harvey Pekar showed, there is deep drama in the smallest things in everyday life, and Ashley gets at this through an elusive, evocative structure. What he called the “imagery” of Improvement comes from the history of the Jews from their expulsion from Spain in 1492 to present day America. This foundation is made explicit mainly through a stream-of-consciousness philosophical lecture from The Doctor (Ruder), and otherwise is there in the poignancy of Linda’s story of being abandoned and then carving her way to a settled point in life.

Improvement is engrossing because Ashley was one of the finest American prose writers of the 20th century and his writing was made thrilling Thursday night by the beauty of the performance. These new artists incorporate Ashley wholly in their musical experience, taking the work beyond the objective presentation of the opera’s means, style, and form. Thursday night they were as characterful and plainly human as one will experience on the opera stage.

Bell was exceptional, the warm glow of her voice a colorful contrast with Ashley’s pleasantly parched midwestern twang. She expressed vocally Linda’s mix of befuddlement and optimism, her sense that her own life is a mystery—and through some imperceptible means she outlined Linda’s aging while always sounding the same.

Ashley put something of a pop song in Improvement, “Tarzan,” with snappy, hip lyrics.  McCorkle sang this with an offhand cool and rubato that Steve McQueen would have envied.

Everyone was terrific and mostly technically polished, despite a few trips over words. Kidambi and Simons took their material and shaped it into expressive phrases—this was the most song-like Ashley one has heard. 

Hamilton’s digital reconstruction of the original audio was superb, true to the source material and with the subtlety Ashley requires, while also having ample open space, depth, and vividness. He was just as much a member of the ensemble as the artists on stage, and just as vital to the human feeling that grew throughout the performance to a gentle but moving coda at the end of the evening.

Improvement continues at The Kitchen 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and February 13-16.

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