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As with any successful opera, it is difficult to pick apart the fused components that make up the total work of art that is You Us We All. Shara Worden’s music is rich and strange, its contemporary sense of time and space knitted together with Baroque rhythms and sound textures. Andrew Ondrejcak’s texts form one long poem on the human condition, and they weave through not only the music but his own continually changing visual design, as the singers move through the glittering, richly-hued stage world, their voices arrowing into the listeners’ souls. The ten musicians of the ensemble Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X.) make the sensuous music, and, seated on either side of the raked stage in their black and white formal clothes, they form a kind of buttress to the bright platform – a support for it, and an intermediary between the artistic nakedness there and the ordinary world.
This fabulous spectacle, loosely based on 16th and 17th century English court masques, was presented in Memorial Hall by Carolina Performing Arts, but was commissioned by B.O.X. (Pieter Theuns, artistic director) and co-commissioned by presenters in Germany and in Belgium, where B.O.X. is based. The success of this highly collaborative project seems to be due to the extraordinary artistic breadth and depth of the makers. B.O.X. makes contemporary music on Baroque instruments. Ondrejcak’s training includes architecture, painting and playwriting; some of his recent experience includes art-directing high fashion shows. The gorgeous costumes are his, and like the rest of the work, use Baroque source material in an utterly modern way. Worden’s musical compositions range from pop to opera, and she has a trained operatic voice – she sang the character of Hope. The other four singers all have long and various resumes, but many CPA patrons will have remembered the cello-voiced, charismatic Helga Davis (Virtue) from her role in Maya Beiser’s cello opera, Elsewhere.
You Us We All, for all its showy glamour, floats on a current of melancholic human struggle with morality and mortality. That dark river whirls with other riffles, though; it glints with light, and bubbles rise. Laughter happens, and love. Although it wouldn’t exist without the intimate collaboration of the principals, the strength of the opera seems to come from Ondrejcak, whose singular sensibility ties together words, lush, surprising visuals, and the actions and timing. His direction gives the opera a powerful dramatic arc, as the figures of Hope, Virtue, Love, Death and Time play out their perennial plaints and joys.
The opera’s intent is made clear in its first moments: The figure of Time (Carlos Soto), in a skullcap, the pleated collar of a clown or a rich courtier, and white underwear, comes grinning to the downstage edge of the raised platform. He strips off his underwear to reveal another pair, and tosses the first onto the shadowy pile of time past. This is how it is and how it will be. For the time we have, Time will strip us down as we dance and chat with Hope, Love and Virtue, and Death will be our truest friend.
I found You Us We All mesmerizing and almost unbearably moving, with its hard truths laid so gently down before us. Its inclusive view of humanity, its deft activation of abstraction, its wordplay, its mature use of computer imaging, its implacable insistence on bodily reality, its equalizing of the intellectual and the sensual, its great beauty of sound, and its pink balloons of love combined to make this experimental opera a catharsis, and a wonder and a delight.