Opera Cabal at Galapagos: The revolution will be multimedia

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Opera Cabal may call Lewis Nielson's new composition USW (und so weiter) an opera, but it reads more like performance art. Whatever you want to call it, this production takes its audience on a wild, compelling, multimedia ride based on the life and times of the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Experimental, arty and progressive, the piece is dominated by four components: music, video projections, live performance and prerecorded quotes from a number of Marxists and poets. Singing, Opera Cabal's music director Nicholas DeMaison insists, is not pertinent to the definition of this piece as a chamber opera, and is treated thusly since it is barely a component of the composition. Instead, overlain "librettos" of writings by Luxemburg and F. Scott Fitzgerald read in various languages, films of kittens being birthed and the abusive pseudosexual relationship between two actresses take center stage.

Were it not for the fact that the video and stage action mostly overpowers the auditory components of the show, the most impressive aspect of the presentation would have been the fusion of the instruments, readings and sounds made by the actresses. As it was, however, the women's passionate performances—which included jumping and grabbing at the air, throwing a ball against a backlit white screen, running across the metal plank of the center aisle, and constructing a wooden chair around which to fight and fondle—created an emotional rhythm that elevated the rest of the composition and kept it in check. Complementing their performance (which came closer to conventional notions of dance than the sounds did to opera) was the video imagery of metal compasses marching in line, digital snow overwritten in longhand scrawl and sepia-toned films that abstracted their movements.

USW's New York premiere was preceded by performances of Nielson's What About You? and DeMaison's Black Wheels (three sides square), two intensely challenging instrumental compositions that rigorously explore the possible interactions between the sounds made by instruments, voices and bodily actions. Clearly scholarly endeavors, together the three works manage to cross the threshold from being abstractly academic to emotionally provocative, leaving the skeptical viewer's skepticism shaken, but only barely.—Emily Bauman

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