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They Sing of Voyages

The skull is said to grin: Sin Cha Hong in The woman Laughing.
photo: Pete Kuhns

In the early works of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, including their first joint project, Einstein on the Beach (1976), neither seemed to care much for linearity. Wilson collaged his extraordinary visions—part painting with human figures, part choreography. Glass's sweet, pulsing, repetitive patterns swelled and thinned, not so much arrowing toward a goal as wheeling into the stratosphere.

In an operatic collaboration like White Raven, Wilson focuses his directorial eye on a semblance of narrative, and Glass provides some gorgeously limpid arias, trios, quartets, and so on that hark back to the traditions of 19th-century opera. Yet we also hear swatches of the composer's trademark sled rides atop two-note throbbing; the poetic libretto by Portuguese poet Luisa Costa Gomes meditates on a story rather than telling one.

White Raven, commissioned for Expo '98 in Lisbon and presented here by the Lincoln Center Festival, honors Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama and their crews, who braved ocean storms and other perils to bring their royal patrons riches and news of lands to conquer. In the opera, these voyages are not experienced but remembered or foretold. They mesh with other journeys: that of the explorer-as-writer who is setting it all down, and a larger one in which the "earthly paradise" these early navigators sought and the unknown limits of outer space stand for spiritual or artistic potential. In one of the most beautiful speeches (spoken in English by Lucinda Childs), the Writer begins, "This is the movement before the first, when nothing yet exists. Maybe there is some kind of direction: a north, a south and the wish to go. This is about that movement, that clear movement before the raising of the arm, the stirring of the leg, the prior movement. It is the instant when possibility is stronger than reality."

Wilson's theater pieces of the 1960s were homespun fantasies, meticulously worked out. Now, facilitated by the technology of the opera house, his visions have become lapidary, as if he cuts and polishes each image and sets it just so on the stage. His lighting may pick out two faces or a pair of hands. A singing Queen (Ana Paula Russo) and King (Yuri Batukov) in stiff black outfits are surrounded by black-garbed courtiers striding, or frozen in attitudes of prayer or argument or strife. Behind them, between the arches that frame a royal blue sky, a mystical bishop in a swirl of white robes passes (the fabulous costumes are by Moidele Bickel). Suddenly, as if bleached by prolonged lightning, the "sky" turns white, then sinks into violet.

Wilson often pits restless bursts of motion against stillness. Most of the time, those singing simply stand, ungesturing, and deliver, while others move in fits and starts. In the linking episodes called "kneeplays" (an old Wilson device), Childs frequently appears with soprano and alto ravens (Suzan Hanson and Maria Jonas) who attend her, amplifying her thoughts, echoing her gestures, and frolicking gravely with tiptoe steps and little jumps. Dressed in pants and a jacket, Childs moves with electric precision, pressing forward in chopped lunges, raising an arm, turning sharply. Her brisk, breathy readings are not always fully audible, but her dancing is crystalline.

There are many startling images. Three singing sailors, dressed in white fat suits and modified chefs' hats, toddle about, wiggling their heads and thrusting wacky legs into the air. One of several travelers (Vasco da Gama, sung by Herbert Perry) and a "native" king, elaborately tattooed in black and white and holding a big white mask, pull slim white poles from inside larger ones and duel. In one scene, an immense shining scimitar descends from above as if to pin a blue doughnut of light, while Childs, emitting strangled cries, speaks Wilhelm Reich's words about blue—the rich blue Wilson has been producing—as the color of both orgone energy and the sea. In an after-shipwreck scene, outsized arms and legs and whirling cutout figures surface and sink amid rising and falling cutout waves.

Tales of strange lands make everything permissible. Why should Judy Garland not appear with a huge Tin Man? Or two golden back-to-back Siamese twins not toddle in, immured in a single hoopskirt? Why not have glamorous Miss Universe (Janice Felty) descend on a crescent moon and join three scientists in singing about the harmony of the spheres while a little boy on a suspended chair peruses her through a telescope? Is it so strange that the King and Queen of Portugal should quiz each other on etiquette from a 19th-century manual?

White Raven is sung in Portuguese; most of us can't fully absorb the rich text, since our gaze must flick from stage to supertitles. Toward the end, the opera lurches slightly away from its precise if enigmatic imagery, in a dashing-about scherzo and a scene of present-day Brazil burning, but it reaches out to snare the audience with an epilogue in which the entire cast, including the chorus, gradually accumulates onstage, and conductor Dennis Russell Davies guides Glass's music through lift-off.


In the '70s and '80s Sin Cha Hong choreographed in New York. Since 1990, she has been making dances with her company, Laughing Stone, on a mountaintop outside of Seoul. That distanced perspective may have molded The Woman Laughing, a solo she showed at La MaMa in June.

Her simple, resonant actions form a journey in several stages. Hong is 60 now, although you mightn't guess it; yet she knows age and death are inevitable, and it's wise to confront them. Masaru Soga's taped score mixes music with natural sounds, and his lighting delineates dim paths and resting places. As Hong wanders, she makes soft gestures that say "rest" or "come flow this way." One stop is at a small hill of skulls. Holding one head close, she suddenly cries out, "Ahhhaha, ah hue oh!" As she strokes this skull, rearranges that one, they clack, and the light hitting their eye sockets seems, eerily, to clothe them in flesh. Grunting, chanting voices are flooded with the sound of water.

At another point, Hong sits meditatively in a swing, contemplating the arc between nearness and distance, speaking an unfinished thought: "Grandma said her grandmother used to say it to her too. I wonder if she knew the name of it." Further along, she gazes into a hand mirror, troubled at first by what she sees. Lying on a small platform, she swims in air. "Hail," her gestures say, "goodbye." Returning to the mirror, she swings it wildly and sits in the front row listening to musician Young-Ah Choi play the beautiful waterphone.

Hong starts laughing. " 'Yes,' she used to say, 'life is like a bubble.' " And seated on a stool, the dancer laughs and laughs while white pellets fall from above. Waving her legs like an infant, she catches the "snow" in her hands, in her mouth. In one hour, such a voyage!


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