Rhymes With Opera’s Improvised Theater

By · Photography © Janette Pellegrini · Date 05/25/2017

Among landmarks of opera, 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s “Aventures” (1962) and “Nouvelles Aventures” (1962-5) count as two of the most bizarre. They’re both written for singers and a small (seven-piece) orchestra, but that’s where the concessions to operatic conventions end. The music—with percussion including mallets hitting tables, papers being ripped apart, and, in “Nouvelles Aventures,” plates being dropped—conforms more to the avant-garde idiom of peers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez than to the classical operatic style of Mozart or the Romantic music dramas of Wagner. Then there’s the “libretto,” made up entirely of a vocabulary of wordless shouts, groans, giggles, and gibberish. The cumulative effect feels almost primal at times, as if Ligeti were somehow traveling back to an era before language. (No wonder Stanley Kubrick used an electronic transcription of passages of “Aventures” in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

These short works had a profound impact on the vocalist and composer Bonnie Lander back in 2010. Not only was she devoting much of her studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, to the work of contemporary composers like Ligeti, John Cage, and Milton Babbitt, but she also participated in a series of performances of both pieces throughout the United States under the direction of legendary pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher. Ligeti’s use of extended vocal techniques in “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures” would later inform both Lander’s 2014 work “Inside Voices”—a so-called “concerto for black box [theater] and amplified vocals” that, she says, is meant to simulate the experience of “listening to the inside of someone’s mind”—and her new follow-up, “Coping Mechanisms,” which she considers “the second part of a series,” and which features three singers and three musicians in a fully staged setting.

The one major difference between “Coping Mechanisms” and those two Ligeti operas? While Ligeti notated every single crazy note and sound of “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures,” Lander’s piece has no score, but is instead improvised out of whole cloth.

A wholly improvised opera? Well, maybe not wholly improvised, technically. “Coping Mechanisms” does offer the safety nets of an elaborate tripartite set, a carefully worked-out lighting design, and a three-act structure with preordained dramatic arcs in each act and on a whole. Everything else, though—every note the backing trio plays and every sound the three lead singers make—is made up on the spot.

For Lander, such a concept was merely a natural extension of her current studies as a Doctor of Musical Arts candidate at the University of California San Diego. One of her advisers is Anthony Davis, the celebrated contemporary opera composer and free-jazz pianist. “I was in a couple of his operas,” she explains, “and he always wrote in places for me to do some free improv. So [there were] these unstructured moments in a larger structured work. And I really just wanted to make an opera that was all improv.”

“Coping Mechanisms” is her dissertation piece, but it’s also her latest collaboration with singers Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril, both of whom are members of Rhymes With Opera, an New York-based independent opera company all three of them founded in 2007 along with fellow Peabody Institute alumni George Lam and Ruby Fulton. One of the tasks Lander says she set for herself through this new work was “to take these singers I’ve been working with for 10 years and teach them how to improvise.”

Halliday and Maril both fully embraced the opportunity to add this new arsenal to their performing repertory. But then, considering the nature of the company they all helped co-found, that’s only natural. Ever since its inception in 2007, Rhymes With Opera has made pushing the boundaries of what’s considered “opera” their mission, commissioning new works that deliberately cross genre lines. Among their previous productions was Erik Spangler’s “Cantata For a Loop Trail” (2014), a work that was staged outdoors (twice in Baltimore at Gwynns Falls Leakin Park, once in New York at Inwood Hill Park) and that positioned singers and instrumentalists at different points on a trail that audience members had to hike. And recently, there was “Adam’s Run,” Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods’ dystopian black-comic opera that was conceived expressly for video, and which has so far screened in Baltimore; Cherokee, Iowa; and Durham, North Carolina.

“We really have made it a career in this ensemble of challenging what it means to be opera, and challenging what it means to be a dramatic vocal work,” Maril says. But “Coping Mechanisms” was a creative stretch even for him and Halliday. “Before we started working on this project maybe about a year ago, a year-and-a-half ago,” Halliday explains, “Robert and I had not ever done any improv. So the bulk of the work going into this piece was Bonnie teaching me and Robert how to enter this world that she’s been inhabiting for [years].”

The experience of developing improvisatory skills with Lander for this piece was mind-expanding for both of them. “In conservatory, you’re taught to sing one way: you’re taught to sing the bel canto method, and it’s supposed to be beautiful and it’s supposed to have vibrato and it’s supposed to be from a very specific place,” Maril says. “And in a lot of new music and experimental music, and especially in [“Coping Mechanisms”], we use bel canto in part of this whenever it’s right from the character, but we’ve learned to use a panoply of different noises and everything from straight tone to [nasal tones] to clicking… There’s no end to what the human voice can do, and this has freed us to explore…all of the noises that the human body can make.”

Halliday agrees. “I think when people are writing pieces for you…I feel like, as a singer for your own health, you go through it with a fine-tooth comb, being like, ‘Okay, any extended-technique stuff, is any of this stuff that might damage my voice? Can I do this in a healthy way?’ That’s our role when we’re looking at new pieces: Can this all be done in a healthy way? And so I’m so used to…being like, ‘This looks like this composer maybe just doesn’t know how the voice works, or this looks like the composer wants to kill me dead.’ But in [the case of “Coping Mechanisms”], since we were coming up with our own extended technique using our own skills, it was an exploration of our own voices, which was so freeing.”

Despite the chance elements, though, “Coping Mechanisms” does have firm structural and thematic frameworks to keep the improvisation under control. The piece, as Lander explains, “is about isolation and loneliness in the face of a traumatic event. So each of the acts is a different way of coping, so to speak. The first act is the initial processing of the traumatic moment. The second act is trying to live with it without dealing with it, and the third act is the result of failing to be able to deal with it on your own.” Early rehearsals for the work thus consisted of Lander leading Halliday and Maril in what were essentially acting exercises. “Bonnie would say, ‘Okay, now we’re all going to spend five minutes going through the very first stages of grief,’ ” Halliday says, “and you could only move in two different ways, so then we’re exploring movement and we’re exploring sound, the idea being we’re building a whole arsenal of both physical and aural tools so that when we show up, we’re not like, ‘Wait, this is about what?’ ”

All of this suggests a work that could potentially change significantly from performance to performance. At the very least, that’s what I expected going into the New York premiere of “Coping Mechanisms” at New York’s 124 Bank Street Theatre on May 19 after having seen a video of the work’s first performance at University of California San Diego on April 4. The reality, it turned out, was more complicated.

In fact, the most radical change between the two performances I saw was with the instrumentation. Whereas the San Diego performance featured a percussionist improvising from a more conventional palette of instruments—drums, cymbals, mallets and the like—the New York performance featured a percussionist, Dennis Sullivan, who drew on a wider array of sounds, including electronics and a balloon he blew up and slowly, noisily deflated (the latter especially strengthening the work’s stylistic debt to Ligeti’s “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”). And in the New York performance, the degree to which all three performers—Halliday, Maril, and Lander herself—drew as much from each other’s sounds and gestures in their improvisations as from within themselves was more palpable than it was in the San Diego performance.

Otherwise, you’d have to carefully comb through both performances to pick out significant differences. Even within its rigid sets, lighting cues, and three-act structure, the improvisations seemed more or less similar in cumulative effect. Both times, Halliday was the melodramatic diva, at a couple points spouting off a stream of nonsensical verbal diarrhea with deliberately overcompensating nervous rapidity. By contrast, Lander essayed a wider range of emotions, from quiet reflection to howls of despair. In between them both was Maril, a relatively more stoic presence who nevertheless occasionally erupted in his own impassioned baritone yelps. Even the performers’ physical gestures and blocking stayed fairly consistent in both shows. By its last act, Halliday was slowly ripping apart a sweater, Maril was pouring tea into a cup with maniacal repetition, and Lander was examining and tearing up all the pieces of paper hanging on clotheslines in her section of the tripartite set.

An upcoming documentary about the Grateful Dead called “Long Strange Trip” reminds us of one of the more fascinating aspects of the “Deadhead” phenomenon: the fans’ obsession with capturing and collecting a variety of live recordings, all of them featuring radically different improvisations of the same songs, with fans making passionate cases for one live version over another. But despite its improvisatory qualities, “Coping Mechanisms”—based on the two performances I saw, at least—is less akin to the Grateful Dead’s unpredictable jazz-like riffing than to that of a conductor like Wilhelm Furtwängler or Leonard Bernstein setting out different interpretations of the same score at different times. It’s just that the “score” in the case of Lander’s piece is little more than a few strategically placed lighting cues and a pre-set number of acts. Still, that turns out to be enough scaffolding to keep the piece from collapsing into total anarchy. The path may be different every time, but the destination remains the same.

And it’s that destination that gives “Coping Mechanisms” its lasting resonance beyond the immediate novelty of its improvised nature. Perhaps Lander’s most brilliant touch with the work was to ground it in abstraction, thus allowing not only the performers the mental space to come up with their own sounds and characterizations, but also audience members to project their own experiences onto the action. Everyone processes grief in their own ways, and “Coping Mechanisms” thus works fascinatingly as a Rorschach blot for viewers to find their own points of identification. But though each performer is trapped in a mental prison of their own devising for much of the 45-minute piece, in the end all three of them look past their self-imposed boundaries and connect with each other. When it comes to coping with the darkness of life, this piece implicitly argues, it’s better to do so in the comfort of others rather than going it alone. It’s an unexpectedly affecting conclusion to an unabashedly bizarre and adventurous piece, one whose impact remains undimmed however different the journey is with each iteration. ¶