Before experiencing Robert Ashley’s “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)” live for the first time, one can imagine that Ashley wants listeners to be changed in some way by what he wrote in 1990. Whether one’s evolution involves the understanding of new perspectives of cultural awareness or the witnessing of new opera ideals in a live setting, Ashley intentionally leaves no stone unturned and no idea uninvestigated. And although Ashley is not here to give comments on our current political chaos and severe immigration policies, what he does say in his narrative at the start of the opera still resonates with one today – a higher truth and hope for a more compassionate understanding of one’s emotional and sometimes hopelessly emotionless journey through life as human:
I must explain
An idea that
I am inadequate
In the music
In the settings
In the actions
In the intentions
Now Eleanor’s idea
Conceived as if
In a flash of light
The offering of images is
A radical form of Judaism
Which has come to us
In the same form as
And Theater as we know it
Her idea explains
At least to her how
All of these things have come together
And differences have disappeared
For the sake of argument Don is Spain in 1492
And Linda is the Jews”
Live Performance Highlights
This production of “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)” reminds all of how important Ashley’s work is as a leader in new opera. Throughout his career, Ashley thrived on the beauty of speech and the articulate flow of words, honing in on how they resonated in a phrase. His compositional phrasing of text takes on a rhythmic and tonal texture of its own.
One of his specialties was to reveal a storyline while guiding the listener towards an open awareness of deep-listening. Instead of a rigid musical line that prevents any outside-of-the-box narrative to unfold, Ashley specifically illustrates Linda’s psyche throughout “Improvement” and tells of her life via subtleties within energy sound clouds of text and minimal tonalities. Music Director, Tom Hamilton, said “[we] usually think of musical performance as coming from either interpretive or generative actions: We start with an ideal state as represented in a written score and fulfill that with our own sensibilities, or we start with initial possibilities and limitations and create new ideas through improvisation.
In much of this piece, “Improvement” hovers in the dusky area that incorporates both of those activities, yet necessitates exclusion of any of the traditional means to achieving those ends. This becomes an essential and unique challenge for any singer – how to perform a text that at times wants to be chanted on one pitch, at times wants to be embellished on many, and at other times want to be spoken – an ambiguity that Ashley asks to be resolved differently and personally for each of the solos. It is part of how the characters are defined.”
A Remarkable Cast
The entire cast gave a remarkable performance but it cannot go without mention how much Gelsey Bell, as Linda, channeled a new voice and transformed her role. Bell left a lasting impression that could be considered revolutionary through measure of poise, poignancy and power. Intricately binding her own diction style and voice as Linda, Bell ushered the storyline along without missing a moment to connect with each phrase and emotion behind every word.
More specifically, during Scene 14: “The Doctor (All Things Rolled Into One),” Bell describes a dream that Linda had in connection to her psyche so that the doctor can examine her closely, but instead of alleviating herself from the internal hell she feels stuck in, she apologizes repeatedly and as a result, dresses herself in a cloak of shame and guilt. Bell’s voice took on a new color during this scene that was drastically different from the other moments that she portrayed throughout Linda’s story and the audience was given the opportunity to peer into Bell’s own psyche under a scrutinizing microscope. In close examination, one could see a woman sinking deeper into victimization and detachment of self.
This moment was eerily profound and highlighted Bell’s extraordinary connection to Ashley’s deeper meaning behind this entire story: “The Offering of Images, as a spiritual activity, Replaces the impulse to find a personal vision, an icon. As a spiritual activity it distracts the individual from The task of finding and recognizing a singular, true path.”
The Doctor, played by Dave Ruder, seemed to effortlessly guide Linda in this moment and his voice was the perfect vehicle to do so. Ruder’s calming yet expectant tone manipulated Linda and drove her further into a state of emotionless and powerless bliss.
All members of the cast drove the story forward and deeper into the mind of the audience as a collective group. Brian McCorkle, as Don, Mr. Payne and Linda’s Companion emulated a gentle tonal quality in his approach as each character which highlighted his expertise as a charming manipulator that repeatedly washed through the core of Linda.
At times, one could not tell which cast member’s voice was creating what sound, which vouched even more so for the audial creation of a symbolic web of interconnectedness – lulling one into a state of awareness and perceptual mirroring of emotions. Amritha Kidambi, as Mr. Payne’s Mother, Aliza Simons, as Now Eleanor, and Paul Pinto, as Junior Jr., all contributed to the backbone of “Improvement” when their characters were not the main focus – proving a true mastery of vocal craft and profound sensitivity to Ashley’s work at its finest.