In ‘Gallo,’ Ueno engineers an operatic evolution
Opera, they tell us, is a dinosaur, fossilized, defunct. Yet opera continues to survive the crunch — and even, in its smaller genera, do more than that. Witness Guerilla Opera, specialists in new chamber operas, currently enlarging its impressive catalog of innovation with a world-premiere run of Ken Ueno’s “Gallo,” a disarmingly strange fricassee of sonic exploration and rueful anthropology.
For all its unorthodoxy, “Gallo” has operatic history in its bones. The title character, a rooster (countertenor Douglas Dodson, in bright, pellucid voice throughout), first appears in the guise of the legendary castrato Farinelli, full of 18th-century roulades and graces. And, like its earliest forebears, “Gallo” is a number opera, divided into discrete formal chapters.
The chapters, though, range kaleidoscopically wide. The prelude, a sober passacaglia, explicitly links two natural disasters, Lisbon (1755) and Fukushima (2011), but that subject — man’s contentious relationship to nature — just as often begets avant-garde breeziness. The setting, a beach made entirely of Cheerios (fashioned by Julia Noulin-Mérat), turns commodified excess into a primordial frontier, giving rise to a Shopper (soprano Aliana de la Guardia, vocally fearless, fizzing with theatrical commitment) who sings a Stravinskian pro-consumption bump-and-grind. Dodson delivers a twittering, show-stopping aria: weighty philosophical critiques rendered into a fanciful clucking, chirping patois, then deciphered via that staple of modern opera performance, projected translations.
Other numbers use prerecorded sound as a kind of archeology. Ueno’s speaking voice ruminates on seaside nostalgia and hazard as the instrumentalists — dressed in old-fashioned bathing costumes — toss a beach ball. A sound collage recorded among Beijing nightclubs becomes blurry pop sociology. Sarah Meyers’s direction utilizes slowly unfolding rituals — a dance, a burial, a string woven among the audience. Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting is dominated by images and effects projected onto the beach, making it a palimpsest of history and memory.
Ueno, a musical omnivore, herds a flock of styles, but in a way that feels wide-ranging rather than overstuffed. The four-player orchestra — Amy Advocat on various clarinets, Kent O’Doherty on saxophone, cellist Nicole Cariglia, and percussionist Mike Williams — is often further subdivided, individual sonorities isolated and explored. The music is rich in inspiration, elegantly stark in effect.
Obliquely narrative, hovering between masque and illustrated essay, “Gallo” repeatedly hones in on striking sounds and tableaux: Williams and O’Doherty combining in a rustling, rasping evocation of the swash of seawater; de la Guardia lullabying recumbent audience members while dead-channel television snow, projected down, mimics light filtering into deep water. It is, in other words, very much an experimental opera, not only in its willingness to try anything, but in that its dramatic impulse is, in essence, its inventive impulse. Opera might be the only form capable of housing the piece’s superabundance of ideas; Ueno recapitulates a bit of genre phylogeny while demonstrating that the family tree still produces surprising branches. The actual dinosaurs didn’t completely die out, either: They evolved into birds.