A Comics Opera
Here's the plot: A package gets delivered from one building to another. That, at least, is how the composers, director, librettist, and production designer of The Carbon Copy Building, a new opera opening at the Kitchen this week, sum up its action. Not exactly Wagnerian. But when the writer-designer is the keen and quirky comic-strip cityscaper Ben Katchor, you can bet there are more exotic escapades surging beneath that surface story than the old Gesamtkuntswerk-er could have packed into a 30-hour cycle. Like Katchor's understated drawings in his graphic novels Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and The Jew of New York, the 75-minute opera offers a simple dramatic line that conjures, even as it seems to conceal, a world crammed with the pesky details and putrid detritus of urban life.
Sort of like the facades of the carbon copy buildings in question that is, two buildings constructed according to the same architectural plans, but, separated by 20 blocks, occupying vastly different universes. One, the Palatine, on Park Manure Avenue, houses philanthropic organizations The Academy of Dry Cleaning Arts, The Institute for Husky Boy Research. The Palaver, on the other hand, located in the Bent Spoon District, has been divided into offices for dozens of desperate businesses a dessert embalmer, an emergency chewing-gum-removal service, a masturbator's supply company. "There was no need to expand the narrative," says Katchor. "That always seems tedious in musical theater. The development of a song is enough."
Especially when the songs can be such numbers as "The Funeral March of the Unfinished Desserts" or an entire aria built around a businessman waiting for a delivery and wondering, "Where is that boy?" And provided that the composers are themselves both as gritty and surreal as Katchor. Enter Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, found-ers of Bang on a Can, the 12-year-old organization that fosters all sorts of new music through its famed annual all-day festival, commissioning programs, recordings, and other projects. Each composer has a distinct voice. Lang often constructs rich ambient walls of sound. Gordon writes rock-inflected, propulsive music with astonishing cross-rhythms. Wolfe's work, also rhythmically complex, can also be quite lyrical in its subtle melodic lines and especially in the new harmonies wrought from inventive instrumen- tation. Yet they approached The Carbon Copy Building determined to sustain a reasonable coherence, if not an absolute unity. "We don't want people to know who wrote which scenes," says Wolfe.
It was Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe who approached Katchor for the project. The three had been at the Settembre Festival in Italy a couple of years ago with a tour of the group's resident ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and were such a success that the festival director invited the composers to collaborate on an opera. "We understood that what they liked about our work was its sense of spontaneity and irreverence," says Wolfe. "In Europe history weighs on them, but they think of America as not having a history, so they look to us for fresh vision. So we wanted to make an opera that was quintessentially American, quintessentially New York. So we thought of comics."
Despite the seeming clash of the putative highest and lowest of art forms, Katchor agrees that there's a kinship between his work and the composers'. "I always think of song when I think of comics," he says. "Both are abstract words set to some concrete thing a picture or a particular sound. When I write for comics, I'm very aware of what to leave out, of what has to happen on the visual level. In the opera, the composers took those hints and filled it in musically." Besides, if the high/low distinction still applies to opera and comics, the artists on this project dance happily at the fringes of such designations. Bang on a Can isn't exactly academic 12-tone esoterica. And, says Katchor, "I'm not exactly Hi and Lois."
That's what appealed to director Bob McGrath and the Ridge Theater (who collaborated with Michael Gordon last year on Chaos). "We've always been about mixing high and low," McGrath says, describing the group's more than 15 years of theatrical experimentation with multimedia, music, and text. "Plus we connect with Ben's ironic, detached sensibility."
Four singers play dozens of characters who live and labor in the parallel universes of the Palatine and Palaver, as Katchor's spidery drawings and spare captions are projected across the stage space. "We're going at it with our usual guns," says McGrath, referring to the floor-to-ceiling downstage scrim, three rear projection screens, nine slide projectors, and one 16mm film camera that make up his scenic arsenal. But Katchor's allusiveness and melancholic undertone have tempered Ridge Theater's trademark intensity. "Katchor has made us a little more thoughtful, a little more inclined to sneak up on you than to be in your face," McGrath muses. "We've made him a little more pop."
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