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What keeps the operas-for-television conceit truly distinct from the European high-art tradition is Ashley's ability to translate his irregular view of language into fluid libretto. He considers that his characters are "obliged, as human beings, to make sounds . . . whether or not anyone is listening." Separated from the humming drone of his music—several of his operas are available as stand-alone books—his lyrics serve as odd masterpieces of American vernacular, recalling the loose tongue of Bukowski, the neurosis of Spalding Gray, and the abstract lyricism of Ghostface Killah. His characters don't quite "sing" their lines; instead, they softly and with brilliantly clear diction speak-chant such phrases as "He takes himself seriously/Hotel rooms have lost their punch for him" or "The farm kid smells bad because his father makes him eat a lot of yeast."

To draw further attention to the libretto—to force listeners to hear what Ashley calls "the sound of the instant"—the accompanying instrumental music in opera-for-television is almost always static and ambient. His backing tracks float like extended modal-jazz improvisations, functioning primarily as a moody, ethereal bed for the words. For Ashley, this is one step closer toward his goal of "pure storytelling" and establishing opera-for-television, an innovation begun deep in the 20th century, as one of the most vital musical and literary forms of the 21st.

Sound & vision: Robert Ashley
Joanne Savio
Sound & vision: Robert Ashley

La MaMa will present three Robert Ashley works on alternating nights, January 15 to 25. See lamama.org for the schedule

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