Maya Beiser mounts an opera with her cello

The new-music cello star sends an empowering message with Elsewhere at BAM

Photograph: Nina Mouritzen
Maya Beiser

“I was always more rock & roll than classical,” says Maya Beiser, sitting in her rouge-accented Bronx home. The affable cellist possesses some obvious rocker qualities—a keen fashion sense; dark, flowing curls; and a runway model’s build. But her mastery of the cello and knack for creating innovative multimedia performances put her in a category of her own. Elsewhere, a collaboration with theater director Robert Woodruff and Beiser’s most ambitious project to date, fuses dance, song, theater and film in a dynamic amalgamation that unapologetically pushes boundaries—much like the performer herself.

Breaking in BAM’s 250-seat Fishman Space as part of the Next Wave Festival, Beiser’s “CelloOpera” conveys a message of feminist strength, expressed through the stories of two women on the verge of respective apocalypses, speaking to each other from across a void of time and space.

The narrative unfolds through texts by surrealist Belgian writer-painter Henri Michaux and author Erin Cressida Wilson, recited over pieces commissioned from three contemporary composers. As Beiser’s cello sings in amplified, altered and acoustic voices, the listener is taken on a journey from “traditional, ethereal lines,” explains Beiser, to “a crazy, sexy sound made by distortion and multitracking.” Based on her highly viewed 2011 TED talk, in which she performed Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint with seven multitracked versions of herself—clothed in a sassy Lycra frock, no less—”crazy, sexy” is something Beiser knows how to do well.

The first character we meet in Elsewhere is a young woman played by Beiser, who recites Michaux’s foreboding text while playing Far Off Country by postminimalist pioneer Eve Beglarian—a piece for acoustic cello that inspired the entire production. She urgently calls out to the second woman, Lot’s wife—located more than 2,000 years in her past—frantically warning of an impending Armageddon (“please understand that the sea is about to kill us all”) and of the suffering of women around her. Four dancers, as a chorus of abused women, sway and twirl to Brook Notary’s choreography, with accompanying video by Peter Nigrini. The dreaded apocalypse is ushered in by Bang on a Can cofounder Michael Gordon’s Industry, a ten-minute tour de force that “transforms the cello into a wild, distorted machine,” as Beiser describes it.

The idea for the second woman’s identity came to the cellist during a desert drive in her native Israel. “I decided she had to be Lot’s wife,” she says, “this iconic and nameless woman in the Bible who defied God’s command.” Beiser commissioned new-music maven Missy Mazzoli to create a piece for voice and cello, Lot’s Wife, and selected singing actor extraordinaire Helga Davis—recently featured at BAM in Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach—for the part. “I’ve always felt that Lot’s wife carried a message of strength,” says Beiser. “Sure, you might end up dying. But it’s important that women take charge of their lives, and not blindly follow whatever it is we’re told to follow.”

Beiser herself is a woman who rarely follows. Spotted by legendary violinist Isaac Stern when she was 11, she has often felt out of place in the classical world. “I would come to lessons barefoot and in tummy shirts,” she says, laughing, “or try to talk to my teacher about bands like Genesis and Roxy Music.” In college, the daring cellist was more than ready to shed the classical rep she’d mastered, inspired by Yale professors like Louis Andriessen, who opened her mind to her instrument’s limitless possibilities in contemporary performance. “Before then, I knew I could play the cello,” says Beiser. “But you get to a point where it’s like, what do you want to say as an artist?”

Beiser’s work on Elsewhere, and on her forthcoming album, Just Ancient Loops, is intended to attract a wider audience, and to inspire young musicians daunted by the prospect of eking out a living in modern music. “I think most young people connect more to the kind of music I do than Beethoven or Bach,” she says, musing over where Elsewhere would fall on the classical-music spectrum. “It still is classical in some ways, I guess.… I don’t know.” But one thing is certain: Elsewhere is an adventurous and unmissable production that may just be this musical maverick’s magnum opus.

Elsewhere runs Wed 17–Oct 20 at the Fishman Space, BAM Richard B. Fisher Building.

Follow Sarah Hucal on Twitter: @SarahHucal

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