2. Opera alone. Cooler, but no less troubling or compelling, was Mikel Rouse in his one-man “Failing Kansas,” performed as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Through a handful of songs and minimal staging,
he took us into really deranged minds–those of the killers documented in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Sunday, December 3, 2000
When Telling a Story Just Isn’t Enough
Narrative is only part of an opera, and not necessarily the key to conveying emotional truths
–as two new American works show. By MARK SWED
We Americans pride ourselves on being a direct, sensible people. We celebrate straight shooters, straight talkers, straight whiskey and straight stories. We like explanations, not ambiguity. We expect our day in court, clear and rational arguments, unbiased judgments, no loose ends.
We are not, as is Italy, an operatic nation. Just compare the original American western with its spaghetti imitation. Hollywood has given us rational plots, swift action and the likes of John Wayne and James Stewart, who say what they think. But the Italian western cherishes a more mysterious cowboy–nameless and inexplicable. Action rarely proceeds by the regular clock, but by a bent, surreal one. Right and wrong are not necessarily distinct categories.
Cubistic camera angles disorient. Music doesn’t reinforce action as much as comment (often wryly) upon the characters and what they feel. These are dramas not viewed as morality plays, but as peeks into the irrational nature of the human psyche, which also happens to be the world that opera, an Italian invention, regularly inhabits.
So when it comes to opera, it is hardly surprising that Americans might want something a little closer to a Hollywood-style western than an Italian one, a more straightforward narrative art form. We depend upon projected titles that not only translate foreign librettos, but often turn poetry into plain prose. We favor naturalistic productions and costume drama over updating and abstraction.
And learning a thing or two about plotting for the lowest common denominator from the entertainment industry, we have even found a way to make new operas as consumed with conventional storytelling as mainstream movies and popular novels. The most successful new American opera with the public, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” which was given its premiere by the San Francisco Opera in September, offers mere docudrama. If you haven’t read the best-selling book or if you missed the Academy Award-winning film about Sister Helen Prejean’s spiritual ministering to a condemned murderer, by all means attend the opera.
Yet a performance last month of Mikel Rouse’s more imaginative use of music theater, “Failing Kansas”–which is based on Truman Capote’s book about condemned murderers, “In Cold Blood”–reminds us that the most exciting province of opera is not simple narrative, nor is narrative necessarily a litmus test of American art. * * *
“Dead Man Walking” and “Failing Kansas” are so different in content, style, technique, form and ambition that they hardly seem to be works of the same genre. Heggie’s opera, with its libretto by Terrance McNally and naturalistic production, slavishly retells Prejean’s grisly tale on realistic sets with characters immediately recognizable from the book. In San Francisco, the final execution scene looked almost exactly like it does in the film (and that presumably is just what it looked like in the prison).
Heggie is known for fluid art songs in the mid-century American mold of Samuel Barber. In “Dead Man Walking,” he writes standard arias and ensemble numbers, and he includes instrumental music to create atmosphere and mood. He employs formal musical devices (many that we recognize from film, such as driving rhythms in the percussion) to advance the action, build to climax and express horror.
All of Heggie’s music is emotionally explicit. Give a murderer something agitated to sing, and maybe we will sense his capacity for humanity. Take away music altogether, as the executioner’s poison drips into his bloodstream, and we sense the ebbing away of life. Reflect the saintly nun’s feelings with great tenderness and heart-wrenching outburst tailor-made for the highly theatrical mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and we are handed a satisfying moral dilemma.
We may shudder during the execution, but the opera also clearly tells us he should die. We may even leave the theater emotionally drained, but we feel good about the finality, about things working out as we know they should in a just nation. Difficult issues of life and death needn’t trouble us any longer through post-theater supper.
Like Heggie, Rouse has also based his career and his operas on songwriting, in his case going back and forth between making pop records and working in a more classical new music context. In fact, “Failing Kansas,” which is composed of nine long, pop-styled songs performed solely by Rouse (the lyrics and the prerecorded backgrounds are also by the composer), could almost be called a rock opera. Rouse moves among four positions on an empty stage, singing along with the prerecorded backgrounds, while a film of evocative imagery, only tangentially related to the specific story or events, is projected behind him.
Instead of recounting, in Capote’s cold-blooded detail, the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas and the execution of its two killers, “Failing Kansas” uses opera’s unique and disturbing ability to take us inside the heads of even the most unsympathetic characters. Neither sight nor sound precisely underscores the drama or reinforces whatever prejudices we may bring into the theater with us. And most important, Rouse’s maze-like and unpredictable music heeds opera’s essential irrationality.
Rouse might, for instance, stick to a single line of dialogue, one convict to another–“Hey, Perry, pass me a match”–and repeat it over and over to ingratiating rhythm, backbeat and harmonies. But the line also starts to snake back on itself, to break apart and set up a complex of counterpoints. Through it we sense how a mind gets stuck on something, and by going around in circles gradually becomes unglued. We are compelled, like it or not, to follow that mental journey.
In fact, what Rouse has done is infiltrate pop music with a strain of American opera that actually has nothing to do with narrative tradition but tends to strip away reality altogether–the stream-of-consciousness, spoken-sung style of Robert Ashley, the surreal plain-speaking and deceptively simple musical style of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein operas, and Philip Glass’ Minimalist music theater.
Without narrative, Rouse has no compunction to offer a too tidy resolution, or pat answers about crime and punishment or about life and death. And consequently, “Failing Kansas” paints a much truer slice of American life than does the simplistic “Dead Man Walking.” The capricious murder of the Clutter family in Kansas is part of a world that is both astonishingly intricate and random, and we don’t know where the ultimate connections lie; we don’t know what to conclude about it.
Narrative, plot and resolution have, of course, always been an operatic attraction. But in the best works, they are merely a framework, not the art’s essence. Who, for instance, really cares to follow all the plotted ups and downs of what is often considered the most inspired and human comic opera ever written? Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” endures because Mozart’s music reveals something more than a conniving servant or two. The Count’s enlightenment comes through understanding Figaro–he never will understand a servant, but he can understand a person–and through that understanding, he can better know his own nature. * * *
The famous phrase for music’s operation in opera is as an agent for the suspension of disbelief. But there is little need to do much suspending in “Dead Man Walking,” everyone on stage looks believable and acts believably, while music accompanies them in their believable thoughts and actions. In “Failing Kansas,” however, the music is a magical, transformative art. We don’t need to see the characters onstage for them to enter our imaginations.
Furthermore, Rouse’s work demonstrates that such an operatic impulse may actually have the deeper connection to American culture, particularly to the finest aspects of pop culture. Anyone who grew up at a time when Bob Dylan first became popular will remember how, on first hearing, his long ballads, which Rouse’s songs sometimes resemble, didn’t make much sense. But they inspired repeated hearings, haunting the listener until conventional understanding was beside the point.
The problem with so much mainstream, big-ticket opera in America today is that it cannot rely on such trust, let alone fanaticism,
from its audiences. “Dead Man Walking,” through its single-minded devotion to narrative as the most immediate form of entertainment, does not allow itself to go much deeper than a commercial film.
“Failing Kansas,” on the other hand, manipulates a more vernacular American musical style into a complex, non-narrative exploration of such dark American complexities, just the dark complexities that we hope our westerns will simplify.
Opera deals with higher truths. And the particular path that Rouse is exploring has much promise for the advancement of a new and, in its own right, distinctly American art form.
– – – Mark Swed Is The Times’ Music Critic Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
Monday, November 13, 2000 WEEKEND REVIEWS / MUSIC REVIEW
A Twisting, Frightening Trip Through Rouse’s ‘Kansas’ By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic
Although Kansas and the surrounding Midwestern states have added a prized flat twang to American popular music, it is a musical accent America’s more art-minded composers from the Midwest have typically worked hard to lose. And yet, that same sound can make our opera its most authentically American. Virgil Thomson, from Kansas City, Mo., invented a national opera style in Paris, writing cosmopolitan works with Gertrude Stein that were musically plain-spoken and replete with the songs and hymns of the Great Plains. Robert Ashley has invented the newest and hippest form of American television opera that incorporates the stories and spoken language of the Midwest.
Mikel Rouse’s haunting opera “Failing Kansas,” based upon Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” is a further step in this arresting tradition of Midwestern opera. Like Thomson, Rouse is from Missouri and has become a sophisticated New York composer who has never lost his musical roots. His earlier opera “Dennis Cleveland,” which merges high art with television talk show theatrics, made a powerful impression when produced last season as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. “Failing Kansas,” performed in the Center’s Founder’s Hall over the weekend, follows “Dennis Cleveland” as the second part of a projected trilogy.
“Failing Kansas” is modest theater. It consists of nine songs with music and lyrics by Rouse and wonderfully sung by him. The accompaniment is electronic, all of it realized by the composer in his studio. The only foreign element is a background black-and-white film by Cliff Baldwin, which is cut to the music but contains images only tangentially related to the texts. Rouse, in a dark suit, alternates between the four corners of the bare stage and sings. * * *
And, yet, genuine opera this is–and an exceptionally powerful example of the form. Opera is the distillation of drama, and its value is in its ability to capture the atmosphere of a time and place and the inner feelings of characters in a way no other art form can. Rouse does just that in “Failing Kansas.” Mesmerized by Capote’s celebrated novelistic retelling of the coldblooded murder of the righteous Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., in 1959, Rouse seems to enter into the world and mind of the killers in this 75-minute musical monologue.
Actually, monologue is not quite right. “Failing Kansas” contains many voices, all heard within a single one. Rouse overlays himself on the taped tracks, and they fracture into a counterpoint that he has called counterpoetry. Indeed, what makes Rouse’s music so fascinating is that it completely merges speech and song into a rich overlay of textures. The songs have a lush pop music texture (some have noticed a seeming Rouse influence on Beck). The melodies are immediate but complexly structured like poetry; his beautiful lyrics are highly musical in tone and rhythm. There is always a bite to Rouse’s music in its layered richness, but there is also a melodic sweetness that comes from the subtle absorption of hymn tune into the texture. It ends with a song so unforgettably effusive that one could almost imagine it given a schlocky arrangement and turned into a hit for Andrea Bocelli.
And yet all of this stylistic variety is aimed at a very private and troubling vision. Rouse does not retell “In Cold Blood,” (that’s been done often enough, including at the movies); he instead mulls over it, imagines what the killers feel, tries to understand them. It is a frightening experience to enter into such minds, and the genius of “Failing Kansas” is to break down our defenses through its deceptively flat, cool, understated Midwestern tone. The film helps, too, by its lack of specificity. Images of travel (cars, trains and planes) and images of people and relationships give a kind of real quality to everything without tying the imagination down to specific characters or journeys. We understand the killers’ quest for mythic expression lost in an everyday world.
Glittery, starry new American operas, such as Jake Heggie’s recent “Dead Man Walking,” tell stories we already know and tug at heartstrings well prepared for tugging. “Failing Kansas” doesn’t tug. It makes us think and try to feel as we never have felt. And it does so with music as memorable as the best pop, but better made. This is a profound and considerable achievement. Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
November 24 – 30, 2000
A Lot of Night Music: All-American by Alan Rich
Mikel Rouse: Irresistible force
Once again, as a year ago, the smartly conceived Eclectic Orange program included one of the hard-to-define, almost-operatic, close-to-magnificent stage works of near genius Mikel Rouse. Failing Kansas is actually the first of the trilogy of multimedia works of which Dennis Cleveland, heard here last season, is the second. This time Rouse was alone in the enveloping black box of Costa Mesa’s Founders Hall. On the screen was Cliff Baldwin’s collage of images: themes of travel, fugitives on the lam, crime and punishment somehow interwoven to relate to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood.
Out front Rouse sang, spoke, played his harmonica, all in near darkness; a further collage of voices moved in and out. Somehow, you grasped the shape of a tormented drama unfolding with irresistible force. Leaving, you passed the Performing Arts Center’s main hall, where Mozart’s Magic Flute held the stage -delightfully, I’m told. That work, too, demands a certain suspension of disbelief. Both works bring together sight, sound, music and words, and arrive onto an artistic level far beyond any of its parts.
An Energetic, Electric, Eclectic Orange By Alan Rich
MusicalAmerica.com November 14, 2000 COSTA MESA, Calif. —
When last we visited California’s Orange County, that high-property-value enclave just to the south (and far to the right) of Los Angeles, the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s first “Eclectic Orange” Festival had run its course. Local audiences may have seemed surprised at their having survived (and even derived a certain prickly pleasure) from a month’s exposure to music very old and very new, experimental, and challenging, but the best news is that they came back for more.
The second run began with high decibels on Oct. 13 (Philip Glass’s new Fifth Symphony in its West Coast premiere and ends on a
similar volume level with worthier fare (Mahler’s Second), on Dec.1. In between there has been something for everyone, at least for everyoneendowed with proper tolerance for horizon-stretching and high musical adventure.
By accident or design, “Eclectic Orange 2000” bore striking resemblances to its predecessor. Once again, there was one long and useless evening-filling symphony (the reconstructed Elgar Third last year, the Glass Fifth this year). The marvelous early-music ensemble Anonymous 4 joined forces with instruments in a new venture into spiritual affectation (last year’s “Voices of Light,” this year a new commissioned work by England’s Sir John Tavener). Downtown New York composer Mikel Rouse, whose astounding media opera “Dennis Cleveland” drew cheers last year, drew more of same this time with another new work, “Failing Kansas.” Like “Cleveland,” “Failing Kansas” is an opera mostly because its composer says so. Its story line is the famous murder of a Kansas family in the 1950s, the capture and execution of its perpetrators, as retold in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” One live performer, Rouse himself, speaks and sings material relevant to the story; other voices on tape create a panoramic collage of ordinary lives invaded by horror.
On screen, Cliff Baldwin’s films invest the drama with a visual counterpart. Why it works is not easily explained, why the power, the tragedy – even the beauty – combine for a compelling 75-minute drama. But it does.
Thursday, November 9, 2000
Itinerary: Movies and Music By ROBIN RAUZI, Times Staff Writer
It’s a funny thing that early movies are called “silents,” because there was almostalways music. In fact, music has been such an important part of motion pictures that the academy started handing out Oscars for original song and scoring in 1934, five years before it added a separate cinematography category.
Still, film scores got short shrift from the music world until recent decades, when they first were added to pops orchestra concerts. Now, it’s widely recognized that some great composers did some of their best work for the screen.
This weekend, there are several opportunities to see how movies and music interact, or how they handle the same material. Look and listen.
Tonight Love it or hate it, “Dancer in the Dark” is the only film musical in theaters right now. It concerns Selma, a saintly mother who is going blind from a hereditary disease and who saves her meager factory wages so her son can have a vision-saving operation. Her life is full of suffering, but her daydreams are colorful musical numbers. The Times’ Kenneth Turan called it “that most morose of musicals.”
Many critics, including Turan, cite Bjork–the Icelandic pop singer who plays Selma and composed all the music–as the high point.
Friday Quincy Jones’ music for “In Cold Blood” (1967) earned him an Oscar nomination, and he’ll be at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. $5, as available.  247-3600) to discuss his work with other members of the cast and crew after a screening of a restored print of the film. Adapted from Truman Capote’s fact-based book, “In Cold Blood” is the story of the senseless murder of a family in Kansas by two petty criminals. It might give “Dancer in the Dark” a run for its money in the bleakness department. Richard Brooks, also Oscar nominated, wrote the script and directed; Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play the killers.
Saturday Contrast what Brooks and Jones did with “In Cold Blood” to the work of composer Mikel Rouse, whose new work,
“Failing Kansas,” was also based on Capote’s book. Rouse calls it an “opera”; others might call it a multimedia theater piece. Rouse performs solo, backed only by video images by artist Cliff Baldwin. The libretto–performed in a distinct metered style–uses actual testimony about the murders. He also incorporates portions of songs written by one of the killers, and Pentecostal hymns from the period. “Failing Kansas” plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Founders Hall (Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa. $18.  553-2422, tickets through Ticketmaster).