Ashley at Roulette: What’s an opera and why do we care?

by danielgoode

April 26th, 20012

Robert Ashley says in a video on line that Broadway musicals are too musically symmetrical, are only in 4/4 or 3/4, and don’t deal with the rich language of diphthongs found in the English language. He’s being interviewed about his new opera—his term—The Old Man Lives in Concrete, currently at Roulette. But what he said could be about any of his recent music theater works, written for and performed by his trusted band of vocalists: Joan LaBarbara, Jacqueline Humbert, Sam Ashley (yes, it’s his son), and Tom Buckner. Besides the text (he calls it a libretto), the program credits him with composing the “electronic orchestra.” Tom Hamilton composed “Orchestra frames for the four singers,” and did the “Mixing and live electronics.” I’m tip-toeing carefully around these credits, because, in a certain sense, Bob Ashley, hasn’t composed a note, and yet, it’s all because of him. I’m struck primarily that the five monologues (he’s the fifth, “Bob (Observer)” never relate to each other, and unlike in earlier works, similar in style and forces, there are no longer the exquisitely timed choral ensembles of these five musician-actors. I miss those chanted, spoken choruses because they made for the ‘togetherness’ I think of as being an essence of opera. And they were wonders of ensemble performance.

Elaborate, eloquent…but still: talking heads, these monologues. And yet, not talking to each other. Could other monologues by Ashley be substituted without changing the nature of the work? Would “Bob (Observer)” then have to have other observations? When is a libretto a collage? I think in this case. John Cage’s Europera is an in-your-face collage of all things European and operatic. But Ashley has always been different from Cage in my mind. His texts, taken singly, are stories, told in the first person. They seem to be different characters with different energies and texture. But they are not part of one overall story. Some synergy is lost by this, and the whole tended to lose me. Is Bob Ashley now a composer of texts in which the music kind of goes on anyway? He’s made a music machine that spins out his ruminative sentences. That should be a real accomplishment. But:

Suddenly, I wanted something more: the very subtle (or was it my imagined ‘more’?) way that certain pitch inflections of a reciter seemed to appear in the electronic mix accompanying them—spoke to me, but, I thought: why not more of this, it would be beautiful, engaging. One wants to fall in love at the opera. Or at least hear some singing. I felt impatient with the restraint expressed in the music. I wanted a re-write so that these fabulously expressive performers would stand up, go out in front of their desks and stand lights, and then belt out something together…or even not together!

I saw the first half of the show, and wandered out into the rich, damp Spring of seedy, Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, wondering what an opera is and why I care.