As New York’s 2018 Opera Fest rolls along, audiences in the city have been able to enjoy works new and old as presented by over 20 opera companies. Weaving the old and new together is “Tabula Rasa,” a jazz-inspired opera by composer Felix Jarrar, librettist Bea Goodwin, and presented by the Cantanti Project.
“Tabula Rasa” follows American artist Man Ray as he follows his creative muse in 1920s France. His journey into the Dada artistic movement introduces him to Alice Prin, also known as Kiki de Montparnasse, a model who shows him all the pleasure, and pain, inspiration can bring with it. Of the work, Goodwin says “Much like any relationship, no one truly knows what goes on behind closed doors. And through history’s own filaments and glass, we have received a one-dimensional print. Their complex relationship hinged upon their art, defying one single conclusive explanation… but I suppose, like all great things in life, it is a mystery.”
Grit and Glamour
One notable aspect of this work is the immersive staging, which grants the audience an all-too-intimate view into the story unfolding. Members of the cast modeled in differing degrees of undress, contrasting the roughness of the art gallery as the audience walked into the sounds of barroom music. There were moments when this aspect would hinder parts of the performance depending on where one was sitting, and other moments where it would enhance it. Sitting closer to the orchestra, for example, would lead to instances where the spoken dialogue became drowned out, but this was never an issue when the performers actually sang. On the other hand, from where I sat during a scene in Man Ray’s darkroom, I was aligned in such a way that a stone arch of the gallery became like a portal into Man and Kiki’s bedroom. Taking an immersive approach to a performance undoubtedly comes with certain challenges, compounded further by the amount of scene changes executed, but Jarrar’s creative team is no stranger to immersion. Having done a superb job with their Dickens adaptation “A Christmas Carol,” last December, the experience they gained no doubt played a role here in “Tabula Rasa,” particularly in the use of lighting to highlight or obscure the surroundings.
Thematically, this work is all about inspiration and possession, exploring the relationship between subject and artist during a time when art was at a fevered peak of visionary force. Man Ray, played by Frank D. Fainer, proved a deeply complicated figure artistically as well as emotionally. Much of his lines for recitatives were painted in conflicted hues, Fainer’s singing rigid, firm, warm, and gentle all at once, as if there were something else bubbling below the surface of his words. This conflict was expressed early into the show in his dark room, as Man Ray ruminated over biological determinism in the song “Man and Machine,” and how art could be derived from the chaos of life; here he humorously illustrated his point by breaking the fourth wall to draw attention to the bowing technique of the orchestra cellist Ari Evan. While Man Ray was certainly devoted to his craft and freedom of artistic expression, this pursuit led to him gradually stripping the freedom from his newest muse, the bohemian beauty known as Kiki Montparnasse.
The relationship between these two figures traced a volatile arc from beginning to end. At first Kiki, played by soprano Sara Lin Yoder, seemed to hold the power as she used her charm and form to capture Man Ray’s heart, particularly in her seductive number at a nightclub, titled “Lady without her Man.” The leisurely rhythm of the music, and Yoder’s sensual crooning up and down her versatile register, was punctuated by her free and jazzy coloratura, reminiscent of an improvised cadenza. As the story progressed, Man Ray became more possessive of his muse, becoming upset at learning that she poses for other artists; that the art they share could be made with other people. Though he convinces Kiki to erase the slate of her past and start over with him, the meaning of his words became clear in the beginning of the second act, where he has shaved Kiki’s eyebrows and painted on her face replacements more suitable to his liking. This ownership he exerts over her reaches a climax due to a painting of Kiki with the F-holes of a violin on her back, the symbolism all too clear that she is his instrument (in a nice directorial and musical touch, violinist Megan Atchley appears on set and dominates the musical landscape of the scene). When confronted about the negative press, Man Ray reveals a more sentimental side of himself, and that the painting was not meant to imply possession but pay homage to the people and moments that gave him his greatest inspiration. Though they initially reconcile, their relationship soon races downhill as Man Ray enters a blue period in his work. Here Kiki wrenches herself out of his grip and the two fight over what it means to be a muse; this moment being wonderfully complimented by the shattering percussion of plates as Kiki raged through their apartment. Though Man Ray and Kiki ultimately part ways, what they each brought to the other’s life, and art, remains with them always.
Artistically, I had considered jazz and opera almost complete opposites of each other but “Tabula Rasa” managed to clean the slate that defines genre and present a highly-interesting amalgam of the two. The music achieves this through its melding of forms and styles (some of the musical quartet performers even seemingly have free reign to improvise at certain junctures), but I believe what really hammers this in is the story itself, set in Paris during the 1920s and the Dadaist art movement. This period was characterized by vast exploration into expressionism and the avant-garde. With characters such as Kiki and Man Ray, themselves being more like concepts than people, it feels more organic to hear operatic elements such as recitative, arioso, and even sforzando to capture outbursts of emotional volatility. In lieu of a Greek chorus was a jazz trio, led by Rebecca Richardson with her relaxed but potent soprano, to provide exposition as well as smooth diegetic numbers. Richardson, along with sopranos Eugenia Forteza and Petra Jarrar, would also perform as friends and figures in the lives of Kiki and Man Ray. One absolutely charged moment came in the act one finale where, after reconciling, Kiki and Man each suffer a nightmare in their bed. A quartet of singers looms over their sleeping figures to sling derision and doubt in a maddening rondo driven by a Bb clarinet, played by Eric Umble. This culminates in the rudest of awakenings when Forteza, as the Dada Queen, delivers a razor-sharp high E natural, which sends Man Ray flying out of his slumber in a cold sweat before it diminuendos like a nightmare fading before the morning. When Kiki falls into alcoholism due to Man Ray’s manipulation, the nightclub venue provides a fitting stage for Yoder to sing a maudlin reprise of “Lady without her Man.” Here the soprano’s voice rocketed up and down, from elation to bitterness to absolute anger, her bright singing from earlier a mere memory. Whereas someone else may have been thrown offstage before they could do so, the Dada enthusiasts of the club savor and applaud Kiki’s downward spiral like a bottle of champagne.
Worth noting are the various musical performances throughout. The two leads contrasted wonderfully, Yoder’s silky soprano and freedom around the stage juxtaposed with Fainer’s reserved vocal and physical style, his vibrato and overall movement kept to a minimum. Meanwhile, Richardson’s ever-lush sound throughout established a sense of time’s stability.
Mezzo-soprano Allison Gish cut a stern presence as Kiki’s “Wine Mom,” and delivered one of the evening’s high points with her number “Alice! Alice! Alice!” which danced between loving plea and horror-filled warning for Kiki’s low situation. As Gish’s sorrowful legato built-in dynamic heft, matched by the full and fierce Bb clarinet, she ended on an abyssal low E-natural which made for a meaningful parallel to the high E natural delivered by Forteza in the first act.
The “Wine Mom’s” bouncy romp also contrasted with Forteza’s preceding aria “Just as two hills lie upon their backs,” which was bathed in soothing legato before slowly ascending into a passionate, pleading fortissimo A flat on “Would you still love me?”
As Dada head-honcho Tristan Tzara, Liz Bouk and his Dadaist followers (played by Walter Rodriguez, Geoff Pictor, and Marques Hollie) embodied the exuberance of the art world’s forefront. In his number “To put a Manifesto,” Bouk extolled the Dadaist philosophy backed by bouncy chords in a bright anthem. For all the energy of the aria, the message itself, that “Dada is nothing, but everything is Dada!” beckons with an artistic freedom that is ultimately devoid of any structure, but is made all the more tempting when seeing Bouk deliver it from on top of a table.
Credit is also due to the composer himself for not only creating lush and memorable melodies (try getting the opening number “Blue” out of your head), but for guiding a violinist, cellist, clarinetist, and singers through the entire performance, while playing the piano.
Among other inventive musical effects was the use of a camera shutter to break the awkward silences of Man’s interactions with his models, as well as the popping of a cork to cap the effervescence of the opening scene. Most notably was when, in Man Ray’s dark room, he presents Kiki with a photo he took of her after helping her overcome her disapproval for the modern and mechanical medium of photography; as Yonder takes the photo, the sound of the orchestra warming up gave all the confirmation needed to know that Kiki and Man’s story together was just beginning.
The opera ends after the passage of some years; Man Ray is still photographing women, haunted by the absence of Kiki. The models and Dada artists gather into a final tableau; as Man kneels to take the shot he turns his head towards a sound behind him. Wholly expecting any number of possibilities, the lights cut out, leaving any lingering questions to be answered by a blank slate of darkness.
“Tabula Rasa” comes as the newest collaboration between composer Felix Jarrar and librettist Bea Goodwin, and the strength of their partnership is well-demonstrated in how the music and the text support one another. While it is not free from errors, as nothing truly experimental is, “Tabula Rasa” proves that it is always possible to break with convention, to be free, thought-provoking, and beautiful all the while.