Criminal Element ~ Preview of David Smooke’s Puppet Opera


Rhymes With Opera, an ensemble dedicated to commissioning and producing new operas in Baltimore and New York City, brings their first-ever revival to Brooklyn’s JACK Space on July 11, 2013 at 7:30pm, and Baltimore’s Station North Area 405 on July 13, 2013 at 8pm. This production includes a fully staged performance of David Smooke’s Criminal Element, a work that RWO commissioned from Smooke in 2010, and is scored for three singers and a string quartet.

Composer David Smooke calls Criminal Element a “non-opera” that was inspired by the story of outlaw French bank trader Jérôme Kerviel and his British counterpart Nicholas Leeson, told through a language invented by Smooke. Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith described the 2011 concert version as “a highly creative, absorbing experience.” This new, fully staged production will exponentially increase the creativity quotient, incorporating the talents of several Baltimore artists. MICA faculty member Valeska Populoh is designing and co-directing the production, and is creating massive puppets that will tower over the singers as an integral scenic element throughout the work. Margaret Rorison of the Red Room Collective (video design) and David Crandall (lighting design and technical director) will join Populoh and Smooke on the production team. Rhymes With Opera’s trio of singers will be accompanied by a string quartet from Baltimore’s SONAR New Music Ensemble.

In addition to Criminal Element, RWO will premiere twelve one-minute “signature” operas by Judah Adashi, Jenny Beck, Sidney Boquiren, Joshua Bornfield, Nomi Epstein, Alexandra Gardner, Tim Hansen, Andrew Histand, Mark Lackey, Anna Meadors, Rachel Peters, and Ashley Wang. These brand-new operas were commissioned especially for this performance.
Click here for tickets/info or on the link at the bottom of this page.

David had a few minutes to speak about newly-staged puppet opera.

CM: Please talk about this piece, its history and premiere.

David: Rhymes With Opera commissioned Criminal Element in 2010 for their 2011 tour.

DavidSmooke4_350x232I began by researching the banking fraud perpetrated by Jérôme Kerviel, the revealing of which sparked the 2008 recession. I was surprised to find many similarities between Kerviel’s background and that of Nicholas Leeson, whose crimes brought down the venerable Barings Bank. Both of them were from the sort working class backgrounds that had traditionally been excluded from their trading positions. Both of them worked harder than their peers and believed that they were helping their banks. Both of them began by hiding small initial mistakes, creating cycles that quickly spun out of control. There are several details that couldn’t make it directly into a fictional work because they are unbelievable: Kerviel’s parents were a blacksmith and a hairdresser, and Leeson was warned to go on the lam but delayed his flight because he was waiting for his Christmas bonus, which he fully believed he had earned.

In 2011, Rhymes With Opera performed a concert version of Criminal Element in New York, Baltimore, Hartford, and Boston. For this new production, I revised some scenes and have worked with several other artists in order to create a full multimedia staging with giant puppets, video projection, and singers able to fully embody their roles because they have memorized their parts.

CM: So, this is a “non-opera”? Is there singing?

David: Yes, there is singing, and the three singers are the heart of the production! I called it a nonopera originally because it meditates on the idea of fraud and how people can find themselves labeled as criminals without understanding the events that led to their own downfall, but does so without a linear narrative structure, in an invented language, and—in the original production—without any staging. This time, it’s become a multimedia spectacle and so might be seen as following in the operatic traditions of Glass, Ligeti, Anderson, Monk, and others. I still like drawing the distinction created by the term nonopera, because I’m hoping that the staging will be perceived as archetypal and mythical rather than as specifically representational. I believe that this allows for a universal experience that each person can interpret individually. I want each audience member to find meaning within the whole, but believe that each individual will find their own meaning.

CM: How often do projects like this happen, and do you forsee more puppet operas to go into production on a grand scale?

David: Well, I originally began conceiving this idea about 10 years ago, so it’s been a long trip towards this goal. But, yes, I am hoping that this might spark more similar projects.

It’s been an incredible joy to work with Valeska Populoh, who designed and built all the puppets and has been co-directing the production with me. She has put as many hours into creating the visuals as I did in composing the original score and the final product is as much hers as it is mine. And it’s been a moving experience to see the dedication of every member of our production team, each of whom has added their individual artistic input and has been an essential part of creating this whole. The film images by Margaret Rorison could stand on their own as excellent film art. The members of the Sonar Ensemble and the music director George Lam are providing an impressive interpretation of the music. The singers Elisabeth Halliday, Robert Maril, and Bonnie Lander are all creating vivid and sympathetic characters. David Crandall, our technical director has accomplished astonishing feats on a miniscule budget. Even our stage manager Rachel Christensen has gone above and beyond the call of duty, maintaining a production script and gluing together well over 100 small puppets for the production. All this without even mentioning the work of the producers, who include Ruby Fulton! It’s exhausting to even think about the amount of work that has gone into this, and I am honored beyond belief by the dedication of each of the people involved in this production.

So, yes, I would love to work on a project of this scale again. Once I catch up on my sleep.

Click here for tickets/info for the NY performance of Criminal Element

Rhymes With



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