DOWN HERE ON EARTH
(1996 - Factory Theatre, Autumn Leaf Performance)
Composition : Rainer Wiens (for 6 prepared electric guitars and extended voice)
Libretto : Victoria WardProduction
Design : Vikki Anderson
Featuring : Richard Armstrong, Fides Krucker + Susanna Hood
Direction : Thom Sokoloski
DOWN HERE ON EARTH
Featuring Richard Armstrong, Fides Krucker,
Susanna Hood. Composed by Rainer Wiens. Libretto by Victoria Ward. Directed by Thom Sokoloski. To March 21. Factory Theatre Mainstage, 125 Bathurst. $17-$21.50. 504-9971.
BY CINDY MCGLYNN
I'm sure I don't need to tell you that it ain't easy writing opera. (For starters, if the word "ain't" turned up in the first line of your libretto, you'd be pretty much, how shall we say, morto in the acqua.)
It's even harder if you hate opera -- if, like composer Rainer Wiens, you walked out of every opera you've ever seen except one, and then got asked to write your own. You'd first have to be convinced that it was OK to squash tradition, which was exactly what Autumn Leaf Performance's artistic director Thom Sokoloski wanted when he approached Wiens five years ago to do a "new" opera.
Anyone familiar with Rainer's unique career playing contemporary jazz, composing for theatre and performance and working extensively with prepared guitar won't be surprised by his interpretation of "new" opera. Howzabout a score for five prepared electric guitars?
"I wasn't interested in doing it any other way," Rainer says, and adds, laughing, "The word 'prepared' is a bit pretentious for sticking pieces of wood and plastic in it."
Once the guitars were a go, whatever else might be involved in this new opera was anybody's guess. Mostly, everyone had ideas about what they didn't want to create. "Neither of us is a big fan of cerebral, head theatre. It had to have some kind of gut pull," says librettist Victoria Ward, brought on board by Sokoloski, who liked her work with DNA Theatre, her Fringe plays and her relative youth. "The idea was to write a piece, a new opera, in a sort of Charles Bukowski style. You know, kind of a down-and-dirty street style."
That meant operatic conventions had to go. "Like the operatic voice per se -- to me, that's 19th-century Europe," says Rainer. "You can make weird melodies, but with that same voice, it says nothing to me. It's a colonial art form.
Wiens expanded his palette of guitar preparations for the hour-and-10-minute opera, the longest such score he's ever composed. You'll hear guitars and paper clips, steel rods, chopsticks, swizzle sticks, pieces of plastic and violin bows. Working almost entirely as an ensemble, the five guitarists (Bill Parsons, Nilan Perera, Monte Horton and Wiens, led by John Gzowski) each have 30 odd changes in preparations -- many of which are executed in seconds flat.
Gzowski, who says he likes the swizzle stick best, confirms that the opera is challenging. "First of all, it takes a while to figure out precisely what sound Rainer wants you to make when you stick a swizzle stick in your guitar. You don't know exactly what sound will come out, and Rainer wanted a very specific sound."
Half of the problem was notation, Rainer says. He resorted to sketches and tablature when it became apparent that traditional notation wouldn't tell five guys what to do with a chopstick -- and even if it would, prepared guitar is not entirely predictable. "I had blond hair before the show," Wiens laughs, using the hand that wasn't holding the desperately needed post-rehearsal beer to point to a headful of gray. "On Monday, you put your finger here and you get a G. On Tuesday, you put your finger there and you get an A. At first I thought, 'How could I have been so sloppy?' So I went home and rewrote the parts and said, 'OK, put your finger here.' Next day you put your finger there and you get a different note. And then I realized some of the preparations really swim, so I would just tell people, 'This is a note you have to get and you have two seconds to find it.' "
"It's a bit of a workout," Gzowski confirmed, "but it's a good workout."
And the result? Rainer says his guitar preparations offer a huge sonic and emotional range -- they sound like strange violins, a big drum choir, a gamelan ensemble, you name it. The only thing they don't sound like, says Victoria, are guitars.
"The music," Rainer promised, "is going to be like nothing people have heard. Whether they like it or not, who knows? But that I can say for sure."
Ward, a playwright who had never written a libretto, had her work cut out for her, too. "The first thing I did was write a play, because that's what I knew how to do. I created characters and I put them in a play, and it was a play," says Ward, adding that about 80 per cent of her text melted into the music and singing.
The result is a gritty story about love and illusion. There are two outcasts (Red and Mercy, performed by Richard Armstrong and Fides Krucker) who live "at the edge of the world." There's a gang of thugs who attack them and a neighbor boy (Susanna Hood) who, jealous of their relationship, sets fire to their "home." The fire is cleansing, though, and it invites a transfiguration of sorts, and I understand it has kind of a happy ending.
Says Victoria, "I mean, it ain't Disney, but I think it's a happy ending, sure. I think opening your heart to saying the words 'I love you' is a happy ending for anyone."
"It's about three people's emotional lives. And in a way, I think it's the most accessible thing I've done," Rainer says, sounding half surprised.
"I mean, if I saw 'new opera' on an ad somewhere, I wouldn't go. That's my hang-up or whatever, because I just usually find it has nothing to do with my life. I just can't connect to it. And this is something very visceral and very intense, but not without nuance. It really has all the emotions -- mass murder and tenderness, we've got it."