The isle is full of noises! The ever-present murmur of confused chatter, the strains of a folk tune tinkling through the strings of a mandolin, the dry scratches of pencil on paper, an inspector’s constant refrain of “Can you confirm all of the above information is true?” followed by the thud of a rubber stamp. The heavy footfalls of a man in a guard’s costume, a sudden crack that sounded like a face being slapped but was actually a dancer’s feet striking the floor — this was the environment that greeted the audience entering Guerilla Opera’s world premiere performance of the immersive opera “ELLIS,” which sent the audience on a profound voyage through New York’s historical immigration hub Ellis Island with its fusion of live musicians, archival recordings, and video projections.
With music by Berklee College of Music professor Gabriele Vanoni, libretto by poet Ewa Chrusciel, and stage direction and video projections by Laine Rettmer, “ELLIS” begins Guerilla Opera’s 15th season with a happy marriage of musical expertise and DIY creativity. Sunday evening’s experience began with a wait in a semi-organized line outside the closed doors of the Old South Meeting House, and when the house at last opened, the audience was directed to enter in stages according to the seating groups that had been assigned via e-mail. Like at the real Ellis Island, vaccine certifications were duly checked.
Next came another line, single file; we were handed small brown slips of paper and told to fill them out with a few pieces of personal information such as name, last place of residence, and occupation. (I wasn’t the only one who wrote down the details of a relative who came through Ellis Island.) In another, more intentional call to the real Ellis Island, one staff member quizzed us on what we’d written, another stamped the card and told us to pin it to our shirt, and only then were we shown to our seats, which would relocate several times within the meeting house during the performance. The cavernous hall is resonant even without Vanoni’s electronic assistance, and the collage of assorted ambient sounds provided an abstract overture to the stories to come.
The central characters of “ELLIS” are familiar immigrant-story archetypes. Manny, a bright-eyed young man from Ireland, was sung with earnest gusto by tenor Taka Komagata. Maria, an Italian teenager entering an arranged marriage on arrival, was given resplendent life by soprano Bizhou Chang, and Guerilla artistic director/soprano Aliana de la Guardia portrayed Raysel, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who gives up her unborn child for adoption upon arrival in America. (It’s never made explicit whether Manny and Maria, who crossed paths on their voyage, were on the same ship or even of the same time period as Raysel.) Vanoni’s vocal writing flowed naturally with the rhythms of Chrusciel’s functional but sometimes opaque libretto, and the sparse but evocative instrumentation pushed the characters along their uncomfortable journeys.
“ELLIS” took effort to watch, physically more so than figuratively. Characters argued, embraced, and roamed around in the balconies while Rettmer’s video projections illuminated the vast ceiling and surtitles displayed on the front wall; sometimes it was hard to know where to focus one’s eyes. The action relocated to the first floor after the first few scenes, and this still felt immersive but didn’t require so much swiveling around. The personal stories of “ELLIS” are compelling, the music captivating. The next task for whoever stages this opera is to find the happy medium between conventional and conceptual staging.
Raysel’s final scene, where she arrives at Ellis Island to find her father frail and traumatized, could have been the most emotionally intense moment of the evening, but its impact was diluted by too much extraneous onstage action. Andros Zins-Browne, the dancer who played Raysel’s father, whirled about and piled a tower of suitcases in his hands, eventually letting the luggage clatter to the floor as de la Guardia sang out her despair — a move that didn’t make sense whether Zins-Browne was in or out of character. In contrast, the background hubbub during Maria’s arrival in America added a poignant touch to her soliloquy, taking place in the character’s final moments alone with her thoughts before her first glimpse of her husband-to-be. And all was silent in the background for the contemplative final chorus.
“ELLIS” is already a memorable journey for good reasons — there’s no need for so many detours.
Presented by Guerilla Opera. At Old South Meeting House, Oct. 3. www.guerillaopera.org