Last night SF Opera Lab presented the second of six performances of Ted Hearne’s “The Source,” a 75-minute oratorio, which may well be the first major vocal composition based on texts from WikiLeaks. Indeed, the very title of the piece may refer primarily to WikiLeaks, although the libretto by Mark Doten introduces two major characters, Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning (drawing upon his/her own words from chat logs) and Julian Assange (represented primarily through questions asked of him by interviewers). However, neither Manning nor Assange is a “character” in this oratorio; and all texts are delivered by four singers, Melissa Hughes, Samia Morris, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody. The accompanying ensemble consisted of Nathan Koci, conducting from an electronic keyboard, Jennifer Cho on violin, Natalia Vershilova on viola, Emil Miland on cello, Taylor Levine on guitar, Greg Chudzik on bass, and Ron Wiltrout on drums.
However, the score and the resources for performing that score were only part of the story. Jim Findlay conceived a design for the production that involved surrounding the audience with content. The floor of the Taube Atrium Theater at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera was divided roughly in half. The audience sat on chairs on the floor in two groups that faced each other. However, sight was directed upward, rather than forward, since there were massive projection screens on all four sides of the Atrium space. (The musicians were behind one of those screens.)
by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera
The screens were used for video projections created by Findlay working with Daniel Fish. The overall staging was then directed by Fish, although the only major element beyond the video was the positioning of the four vocalists on the four corners of a square at audience level. Each was seated in front of a microphone, and it was clear that Fish felt that sight of any of them was purely incidental.
Aside from occasional projections of libretto text, the images consisted entirely of faces. Any motion was minimal and probably accidental. For the most part distance was fixed with only rare use of zoom. Findlay and Fish clearly wanted these faces to be as neutral as possible; but the result of that neutrality was that they were as haunting as any of the close-up facial shots founds in the films that Godfrey Reggio created for his collaborations with Philip Glass. (One of the faces almost felt like a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression come back to life. That was one of the images selected for zoom treatment, which made it even more chilling.) The overall result was one of a highly intense and literally immersive experience that can probably go on record as the best exploitation of the full flexibility of Atrium resources to date.
As might be guessed, that exploitation included the audio system. The score turned out to be a highly imaginative blend of vocal writing, electronic processing of vocal performance, instrumental performance, and pre-recorded sources. The listening experience itself was guided by large loudspeakers at the four corners of the Atrium space. Sometimes these served primarily to sort out the many threads of activity that constituted Hearne’s ingeniously elaborate musical fabric; but, every now and then, they would also serve to direct attention, usually to dramatic advantage.
A libretto was provided along with the program. However, the space was, for the most part, too dark for reading. This was just as well, since attention to the libretto pages would be attention drawn away from the physical ambience of the performance (not to mention the performance itself). Doten chose his words well (perhaps with input from Hearne), because the diction of the singers was almost always clear enough that seeing the text was not necessary. (Where it wasn’t, that seems to have been intentional. Hearne was very good at using repetition as a device through which clarity would gradually emerge.)
The overall result was an oratorio that was very much for the immediate present. The partnership of composer, librettist, and designers crafted a “well wrought urn” whose structure and content tower above just about all (if not entirely all) recent approaches to the genre. Indeed, the impact of this creation on those of us who take the performing arts seriously may well be as great as the impact that WikiLeaks has had on how we think about the world in which we are embedded.
Hearne is no stranger when it comes to working with material “ripped from the headlines,” as was the case with his earlier oratorio “Katrina Ballads.” However, with “The Source” he has taken awareness of contemporary conditions to a new level. One can only wonder whether he has begun to take notes on the day-by-day events unfolding in the headlines of news reports over the last few months.