The Australian-Monday, January 29, 2001
OPRAH MEETS OPERA IN PERTH
PUBLIC fascination with confessional television talk shows so inspired New York composer Mikel Rouse that he used the scripted format to write one of the world’s most unusual operas.
Dennis Cleveland, which opens tonight at the Perth International Arts Festival, uses all the melodrama, confrontation, aggression and conspiratorial rituals devised for the successful TV formula.
Rouse, who wrote it as part of a trilogy that began with Failing Kansas, inspired by Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood, says he is always looking for new ways to stage theatre and opera.
“The talk-show format was a great way to break the mould of non-narrative work,” he says. “It was the impetus to redefine what they could look like in the 21st century.”
Rouse says the opera reflects the current obsession with the media and its role in coontemporary life. “We thought that the best grand opera had been the largest, most powerful art form of its kind…No one in the 19th century could have predicted this.”
It is the first time Dennis Cleveland has been performed outside New York, where it debuted at the Kitchen in 1996 to sell-out audiences and rave reviews. Critics claimed it was the first new music event that they had seen attract ticket scalpers. Festival directors from around the world are flying to Perth to watch the performance, in which Rouse plays Dennis Cleveland, the voyeuristic talk show host.
The University of Western Australia’s Octagon Theatre is transformed into a TV studio, with live camera operators and TV screens automatically reflecting audience reactions. Each show is taped live layering the visual imagery as the show progresses and making the audience part of the performance.
Perth Festival director Sean Doran says his programs have concentrated on presenting non-traditional forms of opera and attracting new audiences. Last year was the marathon Chinese Peony Pavillion and this year he predicts Dennis Cleveland will be the hit of the festival-especially amongst the younger generation. “It will be the popular hit of the festival, but it’s the puzzle of the festival as well,” says Doran.
“Because on one side it’s termed as opera, on the other it’s been described as a 90-minute pop song.”
This rock opera will have traditional followers in a conundrum, but Doran has urged them to sample the opera, which comes “only from America”. Doran says Rouse’s ability to write an opera on a contemporary subject in the pop-culture style is an extraordinary achievement and encapsulates a new future opera. “This work should not be underestimated.”
Although ticket sales have been slow, Doran is confident word of mouth will lift numbers once the season opens. Already, walk-up sales to the previews have been better than expected.
Local actors recruited to join the New York cast say the show is something most Australians would not have seen before.
Actor Gibson Nolte says the format could reshape the future of performance arts. “It just may be that straight narrative is dead. What’s the point of it when that’s what TV is for?” he says.
The West Australian-Saturday, January 27, 2001
POWER OF CONFESSION Piaf Theatre
Dennis Cleveland by Mikel Rouse
Octagon Review: Ron Banks
Mikel Rouse’s rap-style opera provides startling evidence that the television talk show has become the new religion of the masses. The talk show host-in this case composer Rouse playing Dennis Cleveland-replaces the confessional as audience members confess their most intimate thoughts. No one is a sinner, though, in the conventional religious sense. What emerges from the confessions and stories of these over-eager participants as they lean towards Dennis’ microphone is the banality of their personal search for the meaning of life.
This bold excercise in cultural satire suggests the seductive power of public confession has become the new reality for those willing to embrace its instant publicity and celebrity.
We are already familiar with the power of talk show hosts such as Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake and Oprah Winfrey to encourage people into acts of intimate confession for the voyeuristic entertainment of millions of people.
What Rouse has cleverly developed with this phenomenon is an intriguing modern opera using rap music, chanting and complex vocal harmonies as the “guests” on his television show become both soloists and chorus members. Its setting is a television studio where the audience is surrounded by monitors as a crew operates the cameras that beam images of the audience on screens.
The prologue is a warm-up session for the taping of the show, with the cue card attendants flashing applause signs and engaging the real-life audience in intense rehearsal practice for the televised encounters to follow.
Dennis Cleveland offers a few words of encouragement before the cameras roll and the show begins. What unfolds over 90 minutes is a relentless exposure of the confessional power of television and its acceptance as a substitute for reality.
As Cleveland roams among the audience he finds guests willing to rise from their seats and recount their experiences. These are in fact Perth actors”planted” there as part of the cast. The New York cast soon enters the centre-stage area as a series of couples whose relationships become the subject of confrontations with the host.
The New York cast also sing and dance as the taped music pounds out its incessant riffs. At times a singer spotlighted in the rear intones wordlessly, adding an eeirie counterpoint to what becomes an increasingly frenzied scene of action on stage and on the television monitors.
Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland is in constant motion as he circles the arena, at times like an evangelist laying on hands. In one scene, set to a anthem-like paean to money, Cleveland does in fact lay on hands as the guests jerk out the mantra “money, money.” In the world where TV has replaced religion, money is a saviour.
There is scarcely a moment of peace or reflection in its emotional climb towards a quasi religious experience, with the audience almost drained of as much energy as the cast in applauding on cue, watching the television monitors or switching attention to the actors on stage.
Washing over the scene is Rouse’s pulsing, nagging, seductive and ultimately hypnotic music.
Dennis Cleveland is a complex work in all respects, filled with a richness of ideas about popular culture and the powerful banality of television to become a substitute for reality. At times there is a willful obscurity in the gnomic utterances that issue from Cleveland and his cast, but these puzzling aspects do not detract from the overall sense of satire.
It certainly requires a certain adventurousness of spirit to go with the flow of its ideas, particularly when it comes to the rap style of music created with the drum machines and sampling effects.
But it’s the kind of challenging, exciting and provocative work that justifies the existence of our annual summer cultural festival.
My bet is that this American import will excite more debate than any other festival show. Dennis Cleveland runs through February 3.
The Sunday Times- January 28, 2001
POPERA DENNIS CLEVELAND
An Opera by Mikel Rouse Octagon Theatre,
UWA Season closes Saturday, February 3
THE TV warm-up guys are hard at it, making a rather stiff suspicious audience loosen their belts. There’s even a fleeting appearence by the talk-show host himself a few minutes before taping commences.
He’s smooth, confident with an attractive hint of nervousness.
Then the 10-second countdown signals the serious business is about to begin, not only for the start of this wildly different musical theatre production, but for 2001 Perth festival.
The Octagon has been transformed into a television set where writer, director and star Mikel Rouse launches his satire on the TV talk-show phenomenon and television’s all-conquering hegemony over our culture.
Dennis Cleveland’s Memory Day is all so embarrassingly familiar and deliciously compelling as special guests on stage and special set-ups in the audience confide theiir inner-most secrets to a man they know only from watching TV.
To add to the madness, many sing their blues while blues harpist Ryuji Noda drags on the hearts of those who don’t.
A young woman says chirpily (she’s on national television after all) that she had run away from home and no one knew she was missing. Where were her parents, Dennis inquires. Watching TV, of course. But there are moments in the show when fingers itch to reach out for fast forward on the remote control. It is not a particularly easy show in which to be part, with action jumping from chat to song somewhat uncomfortably.
It proved too much for some patrons on opening night.
Equally, Rouse would have failed if he had simply replicated a TV chat show. He sets about at every turn to make life sticky for both performers and audience.
The US cast on-stage provide the necessary love crises that go hand in glove with the talk show scene, while also performing as a classical chorus, singing out new-age mantras with convert-like fervour.
The cast planted in the audience is local, adding a clever twist. You may be sitting next to a talk-show confessee, so be prepared to slide down low in your chair.
In an era where self-help books are called literature and the all-encompassing search for meaning is daytime television’s chief diet, Dennis Cleveland sets out to be prickly, absurd, alienating, funny, poignant and inevitably difficult. There are certainly no glib or fast answers to the myriad of questions it poses.
The West Australian Today: Monday, January 29, 2001
A DOUBLE BILL FOR US COUPLE
by Jean Perkins
Married life is a juggling act for Mikel Rouse and Lisa Boudreau.
New York composer Rouse and Merce Cunningham Dance Company member Boudreau spend up to 20 weeks a year apart. The Perth International Arts Festival is the first international festival in which they both appear.
Boudreau arrived on Thursday ahead of her company to attend the first preview of her husband’s show, Dennis Cleveland, at the University of WA’s Octagon Theatre.
He has spent two weeks casting local actors and rehearsing his “popera”.
The couple who have been married a year, met in New York four years ago. Rouse said it helped that they worked in the same field. “I think the positive thing is we have a strong understanding for each other when one is away,” he said.
Boudreau explored Perth in a cocktail dress after her luggage was lost in transit. Her husband had her formal dress and matching shoes in his luggage.
“It was this or sweatpants,” she said.
Rouse plays the title character, a singing talk-show host, in Dennis Cleveland, which opens tonight.
The Octagon has been transformed into a mock TV studio where Cleveland elicits confessions from on-stage guests and soloists in the audience.
The audience experiences what it is to take part in a television talk-show in a funky 90-minute presentation.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company will present three programs at the Burswood Theatre from Thursday and a fourth at Mandurah on February 5. There is a free performance at Cottesloe beach tomorrow at 6:30 pm.
XPress Magazine Cover Story
Dope Opera 1/25/01
Mikel Rouse, the creator of Dennis Cleveland the PIAF show being promoted as a ‘Talk Show Opera’ is astonished at the negative power of that one word ‘opera’ and the effect it has on people.
“That word is much more powerful than it should be,” he explains down the phone from New York. “The fact is, most people have never seen an opera and yet when they hear that word, they automatically think it is something they wouldn’t be interested in. I find that fascinating.”
Opera may loosely describe the format of Rouse’s work, better than the term ‘performance art’ which he patently dislikes. It does not, however, give any indication of the type of music that Rouse explores. Look more to electronica, ambient bass beats, and repetitive choruses and you are much closer to the musical experience. Check out Beck’s work, or any musician using electronic loops in their music, hark back to Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson and you will have a much better understanding of Rouse’s style.
Opera only goes part of the way to indicating what exactly Rouse and his creation Dennis Cleveland are about. In recent performances on the west coast of America he explains there have been suggestions that he has actually created a new art form.
“I don’t think of the work like that,” he says modestly, “But, I do think it requires a certain kind of surrender – a certain kind of ‘not trying to fill in all the dots’ from the audience. At the same time audiences have proved to be up to the challenge, so maybe in the end the piece’s real triumph is that it gives an enormous amount of respect to the audience – in other words it doesn’t dumb down to the audience.
“I don’t want to mislead people into thinking they’re coming to see Oprah Winfrey when in point in fact they are coming to see something much more interesting,” he finishes, laughing. Rouse has created three operas about modern American life. The first, Failing Kansas, was based on Truman Capote’s non fiction novel In Cold Blood, Dennis Cleveland is the second and the third is The End of Cinematics. Rouse sees the unifying feature through the trilogy as an exploration of the different aspects of spirituality in America. “They all follow that,” he explains, “whether it is the Pentecostal religions and Catholicism in Failing Kansas and how that can be both redemptive for some people but destroy others.
Dennis Cleveland looks at how TV has been a replacement for the ritual that used to be associated with religious services and The End of Cinematics is about the ritual of corporate entertainment. They are all very strongly spiritual pieces.”
Rouse also chose the talk show format for Dennis Cleveland because of his interest in non-narrative structure. “The talk show provided an update to the approach of non-narrative music or non- narrative theatre,” explains Rouse. “That has been the kind of work I have been most interested in but I also felt that coming from a newer generation there had to be a way to update that. The talk show format provided a model because it is a popular format for many people. At the same time narrative is somewhat suspended. There’s never really a story arc in a talk show. No beginning, middle or end, they just start somewhere and then stop. I thought that was a real interesting model to update the kind of work I’ve always been interested in.”
Dennis Cleveland utilises a technique created by Rouse called ‘counterpoetry’ which he developed in the first of his trilogy, Failing Kansas. “I wanted to make sure that I was dealing with something that would illuminate the text and at the same time would not sound silly. I didn’t think it would make any sense to have these murderers running through the fields of Kansas and singing ‘O we’re going to kill the Clutters’,” says Rouse, conjuring up images of a bloody version of Oklahoma. “I wanted to avoid that. It forced me to come up with a technique that would be believable and in this particular case, it was combining speech in very strict metric counterpoint, but instead of having the speech sung, it was spoken in rhythms that were atypical of American diction.”
The talk show structure Dennis Cleveland requires that cast members be planted in the audience. Such a technique begs the question of whether any audience members have leapt to their feet to join in the performance, uninvited. “There are all sorts of responses,” says Rouse, “That’s the fun of it. Although it’s about the serious issue of people’s role in a media-driven society, the thing that makes the thing so successful is that people really get into it. At the end of shows, people come up and say they had their whole speech ready!” Rouse does not believe in the concept of the fourth wall, the divide between the performance and the audience. “I think it’s a boring theatrical constraint but at the same time if it does exist, Dennis Cleveland circumvents it completely. I am building an environment that encompasses the entire theatre which then becomes part of the performance in a very real way.”
Instead of bringing new ideas to the traditional form of opera, Rouse is most excited by the comments of writers in America that he is ‘bringing structured ideas to a new level of pop music.’ “Quite frankly, what I loved about music as a kid, whether it was the Beach Boys, or whoever, was the inherent musicianship and the inherent structure they were trying to bring to a popular art form.”
Dennis Cleveland is more cutting edge electronica than it is operatic arias. A comment on life in a world dominated by the media, where the ritual of religious observance has been replaced by confessional talk shows. All this is presented within a structured musical context loosely described as opera. Don’t let your fear of the ‘O’ word keep you from experiencing a night out that expects as much from you, as you expect from it. Dennis Cleveland plays at The Octagon from January 25-February 3.
The Host with the Most
Dennis Cleveland comes to town.
Not many people take inspiration from trashy television talkshows like Jerry Springer or Rikki Lake. If they do, they usually pick up handy life lessons like “Remember never to have an affair with a trans-gender prostitute with an identical twin and a wardrobe consisting entirely of leopard-skin jumpsuits”.
But while the rest of us were half laughing, half cringing at the bizarre antics that take place on these absurd American shows, musician, composer and performer Mikel Rouse was dreaming up a show of his own.
Inspired by the pure theatrics of these TV talkshows, Mikel Rouse came up with ‘Dennis Cleveland: A Talkshow Opera’, one of the most innovative and intriguing shows to hit the stage anywhere in a long, long time.
Perth audiences will be privileged to be the first outside the borders of the US to witness this innovative performance when it takes to the stage at UWA’s Octagon Theatre as part of the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF).
So how on earth did a man with a background in experimental musical composition wind up writing an acclaimed multi media musical piece about trashy talkshows? It’s that insidious beast that is the modern pop culture machine. “I come from a very non-narrative, avant-garde background from New York,” Mikel explains, “and I’ve been really amazed at how that kind of world has really influenced pop culture.”
Mikel is not short of examples to illustrate this belief. “David Bowie in the 70s discovered Phillip Glass and he made these really great records like ‘Heroes’,” Mikel points out. “And the same thing, the LA Times was saying that they thought Beck might have been influenced by my music. Now that might be absurd, but the point is I’ve always believed that pop culture usually takes avant-garde ideas and kind of re-packages them.”
Re-packaging is exactly what Mikel has done with the talkshow phenomenon, transforming C-grade television trash into a theatrical experience that has had even the toughest US critics positively gushing!
To him, it seemed an obvious step. “You see people standing up and doing stupid outrageous things on talkshows all the time, so its not so far fetched that someone might get up and sing,” Mikel asserts. “I did a lot of research and went to a lot of talk shows in America,” Mikel recalls with a wry smile. “I watched them for seven years, but I actually started attending them. I lived in the Times Square area of New York, and Geraldo was taping in Times Square and Rikki Lake and some of the other ones. I went to them all just to get this perspective of how I wanted to make this as a theatre piece.”
‘Dennis Cleveland’ is a piece in which Mikel has used all of his broad musical experience. Being a musician who doesn’t limit himself to any one style of music, he has explored everything from African rhythms to electronic beats in his prolific and highly respected career.
In fact, almost by accident, the man became something of an electronic music pioneer. “I wrote a piece in 1983 called ‘Quorum’,” Mikel recalls. “It was for the first prototype of the Linn drum machine, it was like a big box, and it cost around $2500. And I wrote this very complex piece that goes on for about an hour. But I condensed two sections down to about eleven minutes and tried to shop it as a 12″ single. Now this was in 1983, so you can imagine the results. Everybody was like ‘Why would anybody want a record of drum machine music? It’s nothing but drum machines, ‘” he recalls, chuckling at the irony. “So of course it never came out,” Rouse laments. “Now, people in Europe fifteen years later ask ‘Was this the first techno piece ever?'”
So, for a man fond of electronic experimentation, opera may not seem to be the most obvious choice, but Mikel’s opera is of the avant-garde and not the wigs and velvet curtains variety. “I like the idea of opera because I like the idea of working in large structures,” Mikel reveals. “I like directing media, whether its film or video, along with the music, along with pre-recorded music. So they’re very modernist pieces. It’s certainly not opera in the sense of 19th century opera. But there’s really no other word for them, unless you make up a word. I’m not interested in performance art, and I’m not interested in calling it a musical, because there’s too much going on for it to be a musical.”
Mikel may live to regret dubbing this piece an opera, as he is constantly having to explain to non-opera buffs that it is not something they have to be afraid of. “I recognise that it’s a hard thing,” Rouse says. “It’s like saying vegetables to a kid – kids don’t like vegetables and adults don’t like opera. But kids have usually never tried vegetables when they hate them, and most people have never heard an opera.”
It is a difficult show to describe, but Mikel explains how this multi-faceted, split-personality piece unfolds. “All of the instruments and all of the beats and stuff are pre-recordedÉand we sing along with the track and over it. We have a chorus on stage and other people who perform in the audience over this ebbing and flowing musical track, so there’s never a time when there’s not music through the entire show,” he states.
And of course, Mikel could not resist sampling some of the surreal snippets of dialogue that emerge from the American sociological phenomenon that is these talk shows. “There’s a lot of samples of talk shows, so I took the samples and looped them, but not just looped them like most people sample stuff and just do something over and over in a four-four beat,” Mikel explains. “The kind of criss and cross kind of like African cross rhythms.”
Another thing Mikel has sampled for the PIAF season of the ‘Dennis Cleveland’ experience is the pool of local talent. What started out as a budgetary necessity has now added something unique to the show. “Something else happens, you create something out of necessity,” Mikel states of the local casting element. “If a very good way, not in the politically correct way that is so popular, but in a real way, it really does become a piece about community involvement. I probably never would have thought of that had I not had to do it this way, but now that I have to do it this way, I can’t imagine not doing it this way. It’s just another element of why this show is so unique.”
-Jo Abbie ‘Dennis Cleveland: A Talkshow Opera’ runs officially from Monday 29 January – Saturday 3 February, at the Octagon Theatre. The first preview will be staged this evening at 8pm, and previews will also take place tomorrow at 6pm and on Saturday 27 January at both 2pm and 8pm. For bookings, contact BOCS.
XPress Magazine February 1 2001
Talk About Pop Music
Dennis Cleveland is a talk show, complete with cameras and the ‘before show’ entertainers. You walk in to be confronted by gaudy clothes, loud signs and banks of TV monitors. Everywhere you look you can see yourself, other members of the audience or the entertainers. It’s frighteningly real for TV.
The music kicks in as Cleveland (played by writer/composer/director Mikel Rouse) stalks the stage, and prowls the seats looking for people to believe, to share their thoughts, to want to belong. You are sucked into the back beat, then overwhelmed by the eight part harmonies of the singers as the beat is overtaken. This is billed as an opera, and although there is spoken word, the libretto is mostly sung melodically or in the counterpoetry that Rouse has invented especailly for his works.
Dennis Cleveland explores the themes of television as a ritual, taking over from religion as the opiate of the masses. Pieces like Money turn into an incantation where performers shudder with ecstasy and are overcome by the spirit at the repetition. Soul Train searches the depths of the musical genre while pushing the bounds while Beautiful Murders has a melody to hum and dance to, juxtaposed to the subject.
There are issues of theatrical tradition explored in Dennis Cleveland, the non-narrative structure and lack of a fourth wall are important, but you don’t need to understand the concepts to thoroughly enjoy the performance. Rouse chose the talk show format for its free flow and lack of resolution, but also because it’s an accessible format for modern audiences.
The New York performers are superb, with their roots in jazz/soul improvisation you won’t see a collection of such effortless expertise for a long while, and certainly not on the same stage. The local performers Melissa Madden Gray and Leon Ewing are absolute standouts who bring their own style and skills to enhance the production.
Subversive it may be, post modern it certainly is – but forget all that – it’s a damn fine night out.
THE WEST AUSTRALIAN TODAY THURSDAY FEBRUARY 1 2001 Critics’ choice
MIKEL ROUSE’S rap-style opera provides startling evidence that the television talk show has become the new religion of the masses.
The talk show host – in this case composer Rouse playing Dennis Cleveland – replaces the priest in the confessional as audience members (in reality “plants”) confess their most intimate thoughts.
This bold exercise in cultural satire suggests that the seductive power of public confession has become the new reality for those willing to embrace its instant publicity and celebrity.
Rouse develops his ideas into an intriguing modern opera using rap music, chanting and complex vocal harmonies as the “guests” on his television show become both soloists and chorus members.
There is scarcely a moment of peace or reflection in the show’s emotional climb towards a quasi-religious experience, with the audience almost drained of as much energy as the cast in applauding on cue, watching the television monitors or switching attention to the actors on stage.
Washing over the scene is Rouse’s pulsing, nagging, seductive and ultimately hypnotic music. Dennis Cleveland is a complex work in all respects, filled with a richness of ideas about popular culture and the powerful banality of television to become a substitute for reality.
Until February 3.
Perth Weekly Jan 31 – Feb 6, 2001
Opera meets talkshow in a production that defines a new theatrical language.
While the summer sun beats down relentlessly outside, a pale Mikel Rouse sits in the huge space of the Octagon Theatre’s rehearsal room clad from head to toe in black. The creator of Dennis Cleveland – a talkshow opera, the PIAF show which has attracted both skepticism and adulation, calmly explains he doesn’t have much of a summer wardrobe.
Mikel plays Dennis Cleveland, the garrulous host who roams from stage to audience with his microphone. The chorus of guests respond from the stage, while other cast members are planted in the audience, “using a confessional mode of sung speech and extended arias”. Reactions of audience members are caught on camera and splashed up on monitors overhead in the virtual TV studio.
“Opera is a difficult thing for people-first of all theyÕre afraid of the word,” Mikel explains in his New York drawl.
“It’s sort of like saying ‘vegetable’ to children. And it’s usually for the same reason: kids have never tried vegetables, they just know they don’t like it. And most people have never seen opera.”
As someone who changed his name from Michael to Mikel in Grade 3, and at 15 left home to travel with a carnival, it seems he has never really been one to stick to convention.
“Staging the opera as a talkshow allows me to really completely break with any king of traditional theatrical presentation in any kind of convention you could imagine. There’s just no way once you do something like this that you could ever really think about doing a normal stage piece again because it’s so inclusive of the audience.”
Staging the opera in a popular cultural context, he explains, acts as a “foil” to put people at ease in a familiar environment.
“It’s user friendly, as it were, and then the content of the piece can spin out in a way that it can’t really do on a proscenium stage.”
The chorus performs confessional and confrontational recitals in a spoken, melodic rhythm called “counterpoetry” created by Mikel specifically for the use in his trilogy of opera, Dennis Cleveland being the second.
“I wanted to find a way of presenting American vernacular text in a believable way, so that it didn’t sound like a CNN Opera”.
Using pre-recorded talk-show samples to create polyrythmic combinations, he adds a “square but kicky” talk-show beat-box underscoring, long choral sections, and an avant-garde combination of pre-recorded samples: hip-hop, contemporary rock, jazz, and African percussion instruments. Annika Priest
DENNIS CLEVELAND Until Feb 1, 8pm. Feb 2, 6:30pm & 9:30pm. Feb 3, 2pm & 8pm. Octagon Theatre, UWA, Nedlands. Tickets $35/$29. Book through BOCS on 9484 1133