In addition to being a composer, vocalist, and installation artist, Ken Ueno is also a dedicated foodie. In 2010 he had a singular experience at Momofuku Ko in New York’s East Village. One of his dishes was a spoonful of frozen shaved foie gras.
“I remember putting it in my mouth,” Ueno said during a Skype conversation from Taipei, where he had overseen an installation, “and instantly, the heat in my mouth melted, and it was like this exotic, otherworldly, fantastic new thing.” At the same time, though, “it’s foie gras – it’s fatty, real comfort food.”
When Ueno was writing the final scene of his first opera, “Gallo,” which Guerilla Opera will premiere next week, he made it an analogue of that experience. The scene is a lullaby, a duet for soprano Aliana de la Guardia and percussionist Mike Williams, who is her husband. “I wanted the piece to end, after all this exotic and weird stuff, with something comforting,” Ueno explained. Williams, though, is playing a homemade metallophone whose intervals are microtones, notes that fall between those of our regular scale. Like the foie gras, the lullaby is both familiar and strange.
“That’s the way I live my life. I’m an artist, and the things that I’m engaged with, the things that I’m reading and eating, are all going into what I’m feeling and composing.”
The negotiation between the recognizable and the alien runs throughout much of Ueno’s music and in particular through “Gallo,” for which Ueno wrote his own libretto. The title means “rooster” in Italian, and it comes in part from the rooster-shaped wine jugs he encountered during an artist’s residency in the Italian region of Umbria. (One of the two characters is a rooster, sung by countertenor Douglas Dodson.)
Rather than tell a conventional story, “Gallo” explores ideas – about landscape, memory, and our sense of place. “It’s a mirror of contemplation of ontology,” Ueno said, referring to the branch of philosophy that explores modes of being. That may seem forbiddingly abstract, but Ueno’s concerns have powerful roots. One of the strongest was the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The incident was especially personal for Ueno, who had lived in the nearby city of Sendai for three years during his childhood; the place, he said, “became an irretrievable memory.” And it reminded him of Voltaire, writing about the earthquake that demolished Lisbon in 1755, and how it drove Voltaire away from Leibniz’s idea that our world was the best of all possible worlds.
Those concerns, of how and why we try to subdue a natural world that always eludes our control, are at the heart of “Gallo.” The libretto begins: “I have dreamed and have seen the future/ The landscape of my youth mythic'ly wiped out/ By water/ And fire.” The opera’s set is a beach made of Cheerios. Again, it’s a strange setting that also has reassuring overtones of childhood breakfasts. Besides the rooster, the other character is a woman who represents both a mother (comforting) and a shopper (consumerist).
And though the content may seem strange, the forms Ueno uses to shape it go back centuries. “Gallo” is his take on Baroque opera, opening with a recurring musical pattern known as a passacaglia and containing dances, arias, toccatas, recitatives, and instrumental interludes. The music itself – scored for clarinets, saxophone, cello, and percussion – balances the familiar (it evokes Stravinsky’s reworking of Baroque music) and the unfamiliar (Ueno brings together music of different temperaments, intervals different than those of our usual 12 notes).
Still, for all its allusions to what we’re accustomed to, an opera where the landscape is a character, and in which a rooster stands on stage and delivers an aria about ontology in the made-up language of Chickenese, may be just too weird for comfort. “It’s ridiculous,” Ueno said in an interview on the Musical America website. “And that’s part of the commentary on ontology. It’s easy to complain about the world, or dream of something, but it takes courage to actually realize, actually make the ridiculous thing.”
Expanding on that thought, Ueno came back to the rooster character, and how one of the vernacular meanings of the word chicken is being afraid. “That plays into ontology too, because the risks that we take define who we are, and what we’ve accomplished.
“But that leap of faith to go forward, for me, is an essential quality about living,” he continued. He recalled an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which the great writer said that he wished he could forget writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” so as to be able to go on to the next thing and not repeat himself. Ueno takes that as a model.
“And I also know there are people who, once they have their chops, they feel comfortable re-creating the tool box, keep working at it. But personally, I feel like the only real, tangible thing that I get out of work is what I’ve learned from it. Because I keep my eyes on the future and I want to keep getting better.”