Thursday, April 07, 2011

Urban Arias II: Green Sneakers

So, second evening at Urban Arias, for another piece by Ricky Ian Gordon entitled "Green Sneakers", was decidedly less successful than the first installment, though certainly a well put together production.
The show's problems largely have to do with Gordon's piece itself, a very personal meditation on his partner's death, and honest and serious work that is nonetheless limited by a fundamental mismatch between the content he draws on and how he executes it. The trouble isn't the music--Gordon's musical language here, call it "sentimental Britten" (I mean that in a nice way), is perfectly engaging on its own terms. But unfortunately it is a limited way to convey the dramatic material he is working with, a series of scenes from the period leading up to and following his partner's passing.
I'm afraid there's no way to do this without a lot of bad generalizations, but here goes. The musical language of opera and its derivatives communicates a lot of things well--desperation, ecstasy, what's on deities' minds--a result of opera's closer alignment to abstract music. Opera's strength, first and foremost, is direct communication via music (for this reason, opera librettos can suck pretty hard and not impair the overall effectiveness of a work). Does that mean dramatic content isn't important in opera and we'd do just as well to listen to Traviata with everyone singing solfege? Of course not. But the content exists more to signify a dramatic corollary to the music than engage us directly in its language and details, in the manner of a play.
Which is all well and good, but not very ideal when it comes to communicating highly specific, contextual emotions, like say, the mixture of resentment and pity that derives from being in a stupid mall shopping for athletic wear for your terribly sick partner when you really need to get back to rehearsals for the show you have opening, to take one of the poignant episodes Gordon describes. The image of this scene, not the music, is what is what is primarily memorable, and turning operatic firepower on that image just results in a lot of bluster where there should be simple, effective clarity. Fortunately, we have a whole art form that is attuned to just these situations: the modern musical theater song.
Now obviously there is a wide gray area between these "opera" and "musical" archetypes where the actual art gets made, so I'm not saying that the painful details of Gordon's work would be better expressed through showtunes or crappy imitation rock songs. But on the grand spectrum of drama + music, Gordon has chosen a position that is too abstract for the familiar, intimate details he has gathered, details that a style with greater focus on text and the accessible, specific emotional gestures of modern musical theater writing would excel at bringing forward.
I know there is a lot of baggage wrapped up in these claims and I really ought to go back to office work, but I'll mention one revealing moment near the end of the piece that cemented my thinking: Gordon's character sits at the piano and plays a scrap of piano melody that hews closer to a musical theatre sound than anything we have heard so far, and the emotional impact of the piece seems to click into place immediately, and makes us realize just how emotionally inert the rest of the piece had been up to this point.
Baritone Ian Greenlaw, who sang the role of Gordon's character, offered a likeable stage presence and warm baritone well-suited to the conversational style (although he strained noticeably at the upper end of his range). But in a story like this we need some sort of coherent personality to engage with emotionally, and in large part due to the issues described above, he simply never registered as a credible character. The dramatic effect of this is offputting, as the confessional details of the monologue become information conveyed by a third party, rather than the testimony of a specific person the audience can identify. The Adelphi String Quartet provided a reading of strong Gordon's score that demonstrated a lot of musical interest.
Excited to check out the final Urban Arias installment, "Glory Denied", on Sunday!

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