Roulette 2021 Review: “eL/Aficionado”

A Brilliant Casting Choice Transforms Ashley’s Unique Opera

By Jennifer Pyron

The internationally recognized performance art venue Roulette in Brooklyn is featuring the revival of Robert Ashley’s “eL/Aficionado” and illuminates the vital relevancy of this opera today. Mimi Johnson, as producer, and Tom Hamilton, as music director, revive Ashley’s vision with a new perspective by casting mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher as the Agent.

This opera was originally written in 1987 and last performed in 1995. “eL/Aficionado” is an opera scored for four voices and a pre-recorded electronic orchestra that navigates the paradoxical process of self-interrogation by telling the story of a spy, the Agent, on trial. It questions all motives and behaviors of the Agent in a dreamlike sequence of lucid storytelling that mimics the inner-workings of every corner of the mind. The impact of this work being shown now is reminiscent of what only the late Ashley could have designed – a serendipitous happening of when art mirrors reality and has the power to change the world.

The original “eL/Aficionado” featured a member of Robert Ashley’s core collaborator circle, baritone Thomas Buckner, but for this unique revival, mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher expands the listener’s landscape into something more. Kayleigh Butcher’s voice is hauntingly similar to Thomas Buckner in how it captures the soul of the Agent. Alternatively, however, it creates a new understanding of how one’s voice can shift the listener’s perspective to feel something different. Especially while listening to a woman on trial. 

The role of the Agent is unique in that it requires the singer to maintain a signature tone throughout the opera, a “character-defining” pitch, and then create vocal inflections that express the intent of the text.  Butcher rises to this characterization effortlessly while sustaining necessary balance with her own core voice. She expresses at a higher level what Ashley designed to be felt through this role and the shifting of the unknown within. The level of expressivity felt through Butcher’s voice breathes life into “eL/Aficionado” and causes an awakening.

“My Brother Called” is a perfect example of how Butcher emanates this shift through the use of her pure vocal palette. She seamlessly weaves words with an electric connectivity of reason, response and resilience. Her voice is real and timeless, both traits that prove to not only be vital to her performance, but also to the continuation of new forms of opera written in result of experimental discovery. The tone of the voice becomes the tone of the opera.

The Senior Interrogator, Brian McCorkle, and Interrogators, Bonnie Lander and Paul Pinto, create a framework of voices that capture the raw profundity of Butcher’s voice. This combination of specific voices is an entirely new level of performance and astute awareness of “eL/Aficionado’s” intentional purpose and compositional style. The female voices responding back and forth, Butcher and Lander, create a subtle feedback that then seeps into the subconscious layers of the listener’s mind. Another fascination of Ashley’s work is how he uses feedback to create this double layer effect which permeates something more.

“A Simple Border Crossing” reveals the cast’s vocal synthesis as one of the greatest gifts of all in this revival. Bonnie Lander and Paul Pinto are members of Kayleigh Butcher’s LOVELOVELOVE vocal trio and one can feel the organic molding together of their voices all throughout. Bonnie Lander’s voice especially captivates and shines in this part of the opera as she uses her role to demonstrate vocal expressivity and personality. She is both imaginative and playful.

“An Answer is Expected” might be considered the most thought-provoking and emotionally disturbing sequence of the opera. Butcher and McCorkle infused the dreamlike mysteriousness of this passage and rattle the core of listeners while recounting something sinister. Think Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” This was also where a new landscape of colors emerged through Butcher’s voice. She becomes a maternal instinct that opens up a pocket of unexplored territory for this work. “An Answer is Expected” illuminates and welcomes the idea of considering a mezzo-soprano voice as this revival’s lead to be a genius defining decision. 

This revival of “eL/Aficionado” reinvigorates the spontaneity of opera form and evokes innovation as the driving force that leads listeners to discover more meaning in between the English text:

“The artists are at work.

Their assignment is to change the world.”




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