a Robert Ashley for the ages

For a taste of what people will be talking about and, yes, singing, twenty years from now, not unlike the way that the music of Donizetti or Verdi was popularly enjoyed in nineteenth-century Italy, head for The Kitchen tomorrow evening (Saturday). Robert Ashley is the prophet of modern opera, even if he is still not properly honored in his own country.

We sat in the front row this evening, next to his wonderful colleague, Mikel Rouse, for a performance of Ashley's latest work, "Celestial Excursions," an extraordinarily fresh music-theater take on those we usually try to avoid calling "the old."

From The Village Voice "Choices" section:

Old people--a community so marginalized it doesn't even have a future to look forward to--are the subject of Ashley's "Celestial Excursions," which has its domestic premiere tonight. America's most inventive and ambitious opera composer seamlessly interweaves several natural-language recitatives (performed by Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, and Joan La Barbara, among others), pop-song nostalgia, pre-recorded electronics, and "Blue" Gene Tyranny's homey piano playing into what should be a witty, moving, and densely textured meditation on aging, memory, and the great unknown.
From the review by the almost-impossible-to-please Anne Midgette, in the NYTimes:
His five central characters (including himself), seated at card tables with microphones, speak or sing fragments or long episodes of meaningful past, out of context: pieces of story like tiles fallen from their mosaic, lovely and broken.

What he creates is a dream state that's brought into relation to the outside world only through structural conventions. The characters, for example, come together in a meeting at an assisted-living center, with Mr. Ashley as the group leader trying to impose some kind of meaningful order out of the waves of feeling welling around him.

Their monologues are also grouped into episodes that have the appearance of traditional musical forms, if not their sound: a deft, intricate quartet juxtaposing speech and song; a big ballad-aria, "Lonely Lady," which is spoken by Mr. Ashley. But there's never a resolution; the music intensifies, climaxes, ebbs, while Joan Jonas, a performance artist, enacts a sequence of dreamlike images at the back of the stage. Imposing form on feeling is every artist's task; in this piece, age is the threat to this difficult act, and attempts at structure seem like thin walls seeking to hold back shifting sands.

Ashley himself is now in his early seventies, but his music, his texts and his entire conception belongs to all the ages.

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Published on April 19, 2003 12:09 AM.

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