Like its darker blue rival down the road in Durham, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) is not content to be just a superb presenter of a season full of extraordinary programs. CPA becomes an integral part of the creative process by commissioning new works for artists in all genres, especially those that may be considered out of the mainstream and in need of funding to help realize their vision. Here we experienced such a vision as "the cello goddess" Maya Beiser performed Elsewhere, a CelloOpera in its world premiere at Memorial Hall, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following this premiere it will be featured at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
Elsewhere is actually a continuation, and possible culmination, of the Almost Human project which first played at Carnegie's Zankel Hall in 2006. In this earlier work, Beiser created a quasi post-apocalyptic world (think The Road Warrior) with women bearing witness to society's annihilation. The driving sentiment of this work was "I am writing you from a far-off country," but it felt incomplete and lacking a more expansive vision. Beiser's inspiration for Elsewhere came as she was visiting her native Israel and came upon a monument near the Dead Sea that was described as Lot's wife. Beiser became obsessed with the story of this biblical figure and the idea of Elsewhere was conceived. Along with director Robert Woodruff, Beiser created this extraordinary triptych of music, poetry, theater, and electronic effects that emphatically assaults all of the senses.
The set effectively gave the impression of faceless industry and a desolate landscape that isn't far from pictures the West has seen of North Korea. Beiser strode out and picked up her cello that had been propped against one of several benches behind a large plastic screen stretched across the entire stage. This first "act" was Far Off Country, with text by Henri Michaux (1899-1984) and music by Eve Beglarian (b.1958). There was a constant pulsating white line about one third up the height of the plastic which seemed to mimic the cadence of the text. Beiser, in this segment, was playing a traditional wooden cello that was amplified; at times, it was hard to believe that this was the same instrument that Yo-Yo Ma had played on this stage weeks earlier. With prodigious use of tape loops she was able to create a universe of sounds and emotions from a single source. She also intoned parts of the text while playing.
While the words of all of the sections were printed in the program, it was hard to read in the darkness, but this mattered not. The total effect was mesmerizing and Opera, being what it is, could exist as a musical and theatrical experience even if the singers were reciting the tax code.
The second panel, Industry, with music by Michael Gordon (b.1956) of Bang-on-a-Can fame, ratcheted up the "avant-garde" elements. Four dancers were positioned in what appeared to be a prison-like setting with four beds lined up. There was lots of writhing and jumping around with the implication that they were the subjugated slave class of a demonic controlling force that needed to be overthrown. One by one, each dancer was, in a sense, able to escape, but to what? They crawled under the plastic panel into a world of an unexplained substance on the floor and proceeded to lie motionless. Finally, there was a blinding light as Beiser carefully put her cello down and also crawled under the partition.
This led into the third and final section: Salt, with music by Missy Mazzoli (b.1980). Here, Beiser opened a case and took out an electric cello – one that basically has just the fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece and a metal outline of a "real" cello. Surprisingly, what she played on this was somewhat tamer than what we had heard on the wooden instrument. This section is basically a duet between Beiser and singer Helga Davis, performing a somewhat rambling libretto by Erin Cressida Wilson (b.1964). Davis has a voice unlike anything I've heard. She has a lower range that sounds like a true baritone and then turns around and soars to soprano heights. I found this final section as the most compelling musically, although the word "lyrical" would never come to mind.
The problem that I see with Elsewhere (and works like it) is that it is so specialized and tailored to the artists who created it that its future existence will depend on the availability of the current artists. But this is now and Elsewhere – a CelloOpera is like nothing you've ever experienced. I just wish that I could be at their performances next week in my hometown of Brooklyn!