You know you're in Auckland when it's opening week of AK05 and the front page of the weekly freebie trumpets "Super 12 Kicks Off!" And they say the only culture in Auckland is in the yoghurt section of Pak 'n' Save! No wonder, with that kind of support. AK05 will be all over in a couple of weeks. Please, get out there and suck it up. You've got no excuses ... for one thing, heaps of it is free (yeah yeah spot the new parent).
So the weekend got away to a magnificent start with John Adams's TheDeath Of Klinghoffer. He's not the only person making interesting opera at the moment, but he's probably one of the few successfully presenting itto anything resembling a mainstream opera crowd, if there is such a thing. Having previously blown the blue-rinse set out of the building with Nixonin China, Adams does to opera in the 21st century what Michelangelo did to painting in the 15th: he rips the best out of his artistic lineage to tell the stories and the issues of his time. Perhaps the historical paintings of Goya are a better example.
Klinghoffer, it turns out, was a Jewish passenger on the passenger liner Achille Lauro, and was shot by Palestinian hijackers off the coast of Egypt in 1985. Terrorism - I hate that word - is good operatic source material .For one thing, it's often hard to get good images of terrorists (or in this case, the Palestine Liberation Front) in action. The composer and librettist's efforts in representing such events help us to understand them. Secondly, the violent events carried out as a result of Palestinian frustrations are - to understate it - very influential on global politics, and opera is at its best when dealing with Very Important Things.
Of course, you have to deal with the Very Important Things in Very Interesting Ways, which means somehow making an utterly repulsive act look and sound seductive and interesting. The fact that Adams and librettist Alice Goodman succeed so brilliantly in this is perhaps due in some part to their long standing collaboration with NY theatre director Peter Sellars, director of Nixon in China and numerous works by Goodman and Adams since. Talking to The Drama Review some years ago, Sellars talked about the liberation he found in opera
... to open up characters, to explore their secret worlds. In drama, when you try to do that, actors say things like 'uh, he's my uncle, right?' You can't do it. But in opera, the music creates such a level of abstraction, you can achieve it. And when you explore someone's secret world, you can really start getting somewhere, that's when you start to take risks ...
And whose secret world could be better to unlock than that of the political assassin, his innocent victim and their immediate witnesses, right there, in that silent moment-of-eternity between squeezing the trigger and watching the body fall. It is not possible to impart a fraction of the power in Goodman's poetry in abbreviation, but I've snatched a few lines below in the hope of indicating the violence, elegance and power with which it shifts its expositional focus from the narrative to the psyche to philosophy, from the theological to the emotional and beyond.
Here is Goodman's rendering of the contents of some heads:
I think of those above us, not only in Tartus ... who gave the order: 'When this is read, let it be destroyed'/ How much, O God, is each man told?/ We have killed no-one, but soon people will die/ Then Syria will show her hand/Every sound you hear is a passenger afraid for his life/ The sea is stiff with men who died unafraid
There's nothing/ No reply/ Tartus is not replying/ I propose we move outtowards the open sea, say a kilometre or so outside territorial waters
Now we will kill you all
I've never been a violent man; ask anyone/ I'm a person who'd just as soonavoid trouble, but someone's got to tell you the truth/ ... We give gladly, receive gratefully, love, and take pleasure in small things, suffer, and comfort each other/ We're human/ ... You don't give a shit/ You just want to see people die
You are always complaining of your suffering but wherever poor men are gathered you can find Jews getting fat.
It doesn't matter which side of the argument you fall behind, the tragedy here belongs to the human race. As with the best of tragedy, there are no winners, just victims. Perhaps all victims, in the end, are victims of history. Perhaps history makes victims of us all.
Goodman's poetry is rendered with exquisite beauty in Adams's music, a polyrhythmic imbroglio of classical and modern influences. None of your elite atonalism, the opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians knocked be back in my seat with its searing, plunging melodies, relentlessly focusing 'in my mind's eye/ a crescent moon.' This being a concert performance rather than a full-blown stage production, it was a treat to see the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus relieved of its normal extras-in-period-dress m.o. and up on the bleaches with the best view and having the sing of their lives.
The NZSO, one of my favourite bands, were also in fine form under the baton of Mark Stringer, who assured us that this piece is one mutha of a technicality to achieve. On reflection, I believe him. Did I mention the polyrhythmic imbroglio? He cites Bach as one particularly obvious source, which I could only associate through the devotional tone of voice the opera has as a whole, and also the romantic operas Simone Boccanegra andRigoletto alongside Negro spirituals. To my uncouth ear, it was big, generous symphonic and choral movements juxtaposed with quirky electronica. Who could resist?
If you want a new genre to go with the new idea, call it operamentary.
While Klinghoffer raged for a single night in the Town Hall (please, Opera NZ, do something gutsy, mount a full production: you can do it!), over in the Aotea's Herald Theatre two very different cultures collided in a very different way. Strata is the first play by Kirk Torrance, who you remember as the bad guy in the leather jacket and the pony tail inStickmen. This was borne in the stable of Wellington's Taki Rua, the only theatre company in the country serious about drawing equally on Maori and Pakeha cultural norms.
Back in the early 90s writers like Hone Kouka and Apirana Taylor found away to combine the protocols of the marae and western theatre to articulate Maori and Pakeha issues in a way that was sophisticated, gutsy and politically savvy: they called it marae theatre, because it so effectively combined the two. Back then, the combination actually took place in a physical venue in Wellington's theatre precinct just off Oxford Terrace, where it attained marae status in its own right. In the late 90s however, the company liberated itself from the obligations of a performance venue, and focussed instead on what it considered to be most important: commissioning, producing and touring original New Zealand work. Strata is the latest in a long line of plays that deal innovatively and provocatively with nothing more or less than the Aotearoan condition. It succeeds such legendary pieces as Woman Far Walking, Nga Tangata Toa, Mother Hundred Eater, Purapurawhetu and Sons.
Torrance has an ambitious, single setting for Strata: 'Two brothers, two Maoris, one day in a cave. It's dark, and there ain't much lights' he tells me on the phone. He's not kidding. I've never seen such a dark play, ever. With highly original use of screens, including some falling between audience and players lit behind, the minimal set effectively traps audience with characters onstage. Considering the Herald is a converted rehearsal room with the most ludicrously steep auditorium imaginable, the relationship is intensely intimate.
The setting also supports the play's themes of vision, salvation and escape. As the brothers dig, and dig, and dig, their vision opens up in unexpected ways. The closer they get to salvation, the more they're damned. Snapping between ugly violence and fraternal mateship, their relationship slowly cracks, but through the cracks, more profound schisms are observed: between the brothers, between the brothers and the mine company, between the mining company and the tribal land, and between the land itself and the sky that once smothered it: Rangi and Papa.
At the same time, the gap between the living, the dead and the never-born palpably shrinks a little. It's eerie, although there are moments - not many - when the good flesh hangs off a bony plot. It doesn't matter. One of the things this kind of play does best is invoke spirits, past, present, and future, in the here and now of the theatre.
All the plays of Taki Rua have done as much as any historian or documentary maker - and more than most - to illustrate life in NZ as something beyond a middle class tea party shot through with rehearsed sarcasm. In fact, I count them among the clearest, most illuminated and positive examples of pakeha and Maori crossovers I've ever encountered.Strata is well deserving of its place amongst them, and of the gongs it earned Torrance and first time director Tim Spite at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, Wellington theatre's big night out.
Looking forward to Clockwork Orange, and the three concerts ofKevin Maynor look fairly irresistible too. Maynor is an Afro-American operatic bass here to sing three interesting looking pieces on successive evenings: Ghandi, King: Aspects of Aggression/ The Repertoire of Paul Robeson/ and Malcolm X: A Commentary. The Wintergarden looks worth dropping into every night after 9 pm to catch a wide variety of tunes and laffs, and there are a heap of free exhibitions and events, including a surprise appearance of Stalker, which was a highly accomplished avant garde stilt theatre troupe about 20 years ago. Is it still?