Beth Morrison Projects
A Cello Opera conceived by Maya Beiser and Robert Woodruff
Maya Beiser, cello
Helga Davis, vocals
Music by Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, and Michael Gordon
Words by Henri Michaux and Erin Cressida Wilson
Choreography by Brook Notary
Film by Peter Nigrini
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Written by Jeremy Shatan
The “story” of Lot’s wife – no more than a sentence in Genesis – is like a tea bag. Add the boiling water of imagination and emotion and it can expand into a fascinating and complex brew. This is precisely what Maya Beiser and her collaborators have done in “Salt”, the stunning third section of her “CelloOpera,” Elsewhere, which finished its four-night run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last Saturday. With music by Missy Mazzoli and words by Erin Cressida Wilson, the unnamed wife of Lot, who was turned into a pillar of salt in punishment for looking back on Sodom, becomes a stand-in for the suffering of women across centuries and cultures – painful torments that often seem to take place “elsewhere.”
Wilson’s lyrics turn Lot’s wife into a three-dimensional character, a woman locked in a brutal marriage (and by the end of the piece, in jail) who is forced to give up her home and looks back, not in anger or curiosity, but because she recalled “The first painting our girl ever drew – forgotten and still-taped above the kitchen sink.” In performance, Lot’s wife is embodied by the astonishing Helga Davis, a pure theater artist with a gorgeous voice and true commitment to her craft. Using precise movements and a diverse array of voices, Davis is riveting. At one point the lights behind the stage went to full brightness and I took a quick look around the nearly sold-out theater. Not one person was anything but rapt and completely focused on the performance.
Prior to the third section, Davis only appeared as a projection on the plastic scrim that bisected the stage, part of the simple yet effective scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Behind the scrim was a row of five cots lined up end to end, suggestive of an internment center of some kind. As we entered the theater, Beiser’s cello was propped up against one of the cots. In front of the scrim, the stage was covered in black fragments that resembled charcoal (they were rubber), with a cello case wrapped in black plastic at center stage.
After the house lights went down, Beiser entered the stage with a dramatic flourish, dressed in layers of white, and took up her instrument. The music for the first part, “Far Off Country”, was composed by Eve Beglarian and originally recorded on Almost Human, Beiser’s 2007 album. Beiser’s rich tone is a perfect match for Beglarian’s slightly exotic music, which seamlessly takes us through several broadly emotional moments, including lamentation, anger, and a kind of absolution, ending with a rhythmic apotheosis. Although it is performed only by Beiser’s cello, both live and prerecorded, accompanied by electronics and wordless vocals, it is nearly symphonic in structure. Beiser performed this with complete command, maneuvering through the melodic sections like a contemporary Casals and the hard-driving segments like Jimmy Page (whose music she has also performed).
It is fortunate that Beglarian’s music was so captivating, as it is the setting for the rather sophomoric poetry of Henri Michaux, a Belgian-born minor surrealist author and artist, who worked mainly in France and was known for travels in Asia and to “inner space” through the use of drugs. Sample quote: “Could life not continue without wind? Or must everything always tremble, always, always?” Perhaps if the words had been sung rather than delivered in a somewhat arch recitation, they would have been more effective.
[Photo left courtesy of Rebecca Greenfield]
Also fortunately, four dancers provided dramatic visuals, throwing themselves on the cots, sliding off, and then flinging themselves against the scrim. The choreography by Brook Notary was schematic but progressed in a kind of narrative, as the women’s abasement increased in severity. Clearly, the dancers, like the character of Lot’s wife in the final section, represented a generalized vision of women as victims of atrocity. Beautifully executed projections on the scrims, from simple lines to silhouettes to newsreel footage, also lent visual interest.
Beglarian’s music moved seamlessly into Michael Gordon’s “Industry”, which stripped everything back to Beiser’s solo cello. Well not entirely – when the dancers returned, covered in mud, their hair slapping against the scrim became a percussive element. Industry, originally recorded in 2002, was the shortest of the three sections but worked well as a bridge to the final section, repeating a melodic fragment and fracturing it as it grew increasingtly unhinged. It ended with a blistering section somewhere between Psycho and “Dazed And Confused”, which saw the four mud-encrusted dancers wrapping themselves in sheets, crawling under the scrim, and lying motionless among the black fragments. Beiser then firmly put her cello on one of the cots, picked up a box cutter and slit the scrim before stepping through to the front of the stage in one of the strong, elemental bits of stagecraft that distinguish Elsewhere as a theater piece.
Once at the front of the stage, Beiser removed a buried stool and unpacked an electric cello from the plastic-wrapped case. In the background, Helga Davis lay down on one of the cots and started singing Wilson’s words as Lot’s wife. Mazzoli’s music for “Salt” was commissioned especially for this piece and is an excellent showcase for the talents of Beiser and Davis. Mazzoli’s music was, as always, striking, thoroughly contemporary and eclectic in style. I am eagerly looking forward to hearing “Salt” again, preferably on its own. With a good recording by Beiser and Davis to establish it, it is not hard to imagine Salt taking its place in the concert repertoire among mono-dramas like Schoenberg’s Ewartung.
With Elsewhere, Beiser has taken an ambitious move forward into the world of theater. Her playing was flawless and she proved to have an effective dramatic presence of her own. I believe this impulse of hers will bear more, and even greater, fruit, especially if she starts from scratch with her next CelloOpera. As it is, Elswhere is an absorbing, thoughtful and emotionally connected work.
The production was also notable, with the team under Beth Morrison Projects ably meeting the technical demands of the piece. The Fishman space at BAM still has that new car smell and was the perfect room for a work of this kind.
Full disclosure: Over 30 years ago I was the MC for a musical evening at New York City’s now-defunct Walden School. Helga Davis was a classmate of mine and I had the honor of introducing her to sing a song. I never could have imagined that she would become such an extraordinary and distinctive performer. I’m extremely glad I had this opportunity to catch up with her talents and hope not to wait so long before the next time I see her!
Jeremy Shatan is the writer and editor of the blog anearful (anearful.blogspot.com)