October 31, 1999 The Talk of the Town?
Composer Mikel Rouse has elevated the lowly TV talk show
into an avant-garde opera.
By KRISTIN HOHENADEL
It was a lifetime of slavish devotion to the almighty tube that led Mikel Rouse to his divine revelation. The New York-based composer had long been ruminating about our search for “salvation” through celebrity worship, media confessionals and the mass marketing of popular culture. Wanting to find a vehicle to use music and lyrics to explore those ideas, he’d begun to compose some melodies and was singing them one day to himself in Central Park, when the epiphany descended: Why not make his next opera in the likeness of a TV talk show?
“Hey, man, did you ever see the Richard Bey show?” Rouse, 42, asked one recent afternoon in L.A. “That was the craziest talk show that ever existed. He was really a precursor to Jerry Springer, but he was much crazier. There was a moment in the late ’80s or ’90s when the talk shows were really doing what could only be called avant-garde theater. Karen Finley was doing it for 200 people at the Kitchen, and these people were doing it for a million people. And not your artistic types, but a guy in Iowa. So this was a very populist idea. I saw it as avant-garde theater for the people.”
The result is “Dennis Cleveland,” a multimedia opera that premiered at New York City’s the Kitchen in 1996 and travels to Orange County, starting Tuesday, as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.
Rouse had long been interested in crafting music that combined an accessible beat and melody with extravagantly layered formal composition. A talk-show-cum-opera could work the same way: combining the lure of an ostensibly simple and familiar form with, potentially, grand opera theatricality and even social comment.
The title, he says, came to him in a dream. Naming his work after a character has many operatic precedents–Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” for example–but in his case, the particular name would also embody his desire to make “real opera for real people,” he says. “[Dennis Cleveland]–it’s innocuous, it’s Midwestern, it’s simple.”
Rouse acknowledges that using a talk show as a model was a risk for a card-carrying member of the avant-garde. But critics called the idea inspired and praised the execution. The Village Voice, for one, called Rouse “the premiere innovator in the radical restaging of opera.”
“Rouse’s music can be as tensile as minimalism, as sensuous as good disco, and as uncanny as velvet rap,” the Voice continued. ” ‘Dennis Cleveland’ meets the ‘American Bandstand’ definition of a hit: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But it also unfolds like a real opera.”
Another Voice writer put it in a larger context: “No goal has been dearer to composers born in the 1950s than to fuse the intellectual with the physical, to melt down all those complex procedures their teachers taught them and reforge them into art that enchants and engrosses and entertains people in human and emotional, not merely technical, terms. A piece that achieved that goal any more fully than ‘Dennis Cleveland’ would probably scare people to death.”
The highest accolade might be one that didn’t come from the critics, though. By the end of its brief run, there were scalpers outside the Kitchen selling tickets, a rare occurrence at a downtown production.
In the three years since, there has been talk of an off-Broadway opening and a film; neither has so far materialized. But Eclectic Orange Festival director Dean Corey, head of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, kept his eye on “Dennis Cleveland,” waiting for an opportunity to present it. Its sophisticated musical content, wrapped in mass entertainment values, made it the kind of piece that Corey believes can foster a taste for the new and unusual, which he says is still a hard sell in Orange County.
“It looks a bit loose and free,” Corey says. “It’s very accessible and appealing, but he’s worked [the music] out quite formally.”
Rouse directs “Dennis Cleveland” and stars in the title role, as well as writing the music and libretto. During the show, he wanders the stage, reading from cue cards and soliciting “confessions” from actors and singers planted among the audience. The audience–not sure
of what is real and what is orchestrated (seemingly spontaneous in parts, the work is in fact carefully scripted)–sits beneath the glare of studio lights and watches Cleveland and close-ups of their own reactions via TV monitors, as if they were in a real talk-show audience. A chorus populates the stage, and prerecorded music and samplings from real talk shows are broadcast over loudspeakers.
Doesn’t the audience resent the blurred lines, the aura of participation, their implied complicity in the proceedings?
Rouse doesn’t think so. “If it was just a parody, then that could be aggressive,” he responds. “You are really getting a lot of information;
no one goes away feeling just used. The biggest compliments I got–and [from the] hard-core avant-garde, used to hearing like screeching sounds for three hours–said this is the most entertaining thing I’ve ever gone to in New York avant-garde theater, and it was the most disturbing.”
As the piece progresses, the talk-show illusion unravels, and it becomes clear that the seemingly unrelated confessions about love, sex, identity and the meaning of life actually add up to a bleak summary of Cleveland himself. In the commentary are some searing
indictments of mass culture and the vapid collective memory made by television. But Rouse insists that he isn’t judging the role of television in our lives, just looking to illuminate it.
“I think it’s an American experience,” he says. “A lot of people write operas about things they don’t really understand. I can say I live it. The work I’m doing is not divorced from who I am.”
Lest we think him a couch potato, it should be pointed out that at least some of the time, television for Rouse is background music. “When I first moved to New York,” he says, “people would think I was insane, they’d come by and I’d have a television on, a radio on and I’d bewriting music.”
Watching him hold court on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the courtyard of the Del Capri Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near UCLA, it’s not hard to imagine this scenario. There is something positively interactive about Rouse as he seems to carry on several conversations at once, interrupting everyone in sight, pursuing a runaway enthusiasm for any number of eagerly delivered opinions, anecdotes or lively observations. Tall, pale and dressed in all black, he has an exhausted look– dark circles, a weariness in his ever-furrowed brow–the perfect ironic counterpoint to his boundless energy.
Despite what he says, Rouse’s childhood was not pure TV extravaganza. There was a time, during what he describes as “a very boring childhood in the rural South and Midwest,” when he used to jump from a moving horse to a moving train just for fun. And there was evidence of a budding aesthete: “You go through a pretentious phase when you’re in like third grade,” he says, “and everyone called me Mike but I wanted to be called Michael.” But he was puzzled by the phonetics of his first name, so he decided to start spelling it the way it sounded: Mike. L. Mike-L. Mikel.
“Then I went through this other pretentious phrase where I would sign all my drawings with this kind of art nouveau lettering style, and that’s when I realized that Mikel looked really cool in print.” So he kept it.
He studied art, music and filmmaking in Kansas City, Mo., and after college moved to New York, where he pursued composing. He formed a contemporary chamber ensemble called Mikel Rouse Broken Consort and began to get some pieces recorded. In 1987, choreographer Ulysses Dove used one of his works as a score to “Vespers” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
From the start as a composer, he went for the mix, which placed him in a genre called Totalism in New York. “Musically, I always was in a dilemma, ” he says, “because I grew up hearing rock ‘n’ roll and country and western, and jazz and that’s the music I loved.
But of course [in college] you get to hear the Western canon, the European music, not to mention world music; you get this whole vocabulary, and then you have to negotiate your place in that world.”
It wasn’t until the late ’80s, he says, that he began developing the distinctive compositional style he calls counter-poetry–in which
sung or spoken voices are latticed in intricate, echoing, rhythmic patterns. He unveiled it in “Failing Kansas,” his first opera, which was inspired by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
“I was very interested in American speech, and English always sounds dopey in opera,” he says. “I wanted to know why it doesn’t sound dopey in the hands of Stephen Sondheim or Robert Ashley or the Beatles?”
So he began experimenting. “I knew that I was onto something because I didn’t like it,” he says. “I had to force myself to understand it because it wasn’t pleasing. You’d like to think that maybe five times in your life you can reach a new place.”
But he kept working on it. In “Failing Kansas,” Rouse played all the parts in addition to writing the music and assembling the libretto
from court documents and reported interviews about the famous murder case. But in “Dennis Cleveland,” the second in a planned trilogy of operas, he wrote the libretto himself and composed a more complex score that can accommodate as many as 30 roles.
He emphasizes that he has struggled to keep his music accessible. “Any artist worth his salt–no matter how adventurous or far ahead his work was–the bottom line was that he was communicating with people. It wasn’t this ivory tower stuff where, ‘Oh, 20 people understand my stuff because it’s so intellectual.’ I mean that’s boring to me. I want to participate with an audience, not alienate an audience.”
The last piece in his trilogy, “The End of Cinematics,” about corporate-driven entertainment, will premiere in fall 2001. He is once again fielding interest in a movie version of “Dennis Cleveland.” And he is hoping that after the Southern California run and another in Philadelphia next spring that “Dennis Cleveland” will tour North America and Europe.
Rouse says that he is ever more convinced that making use of multimedia in presenting opera is the way to reach today’s audiences.
“I guarantee I walk out on the street and stick a mike in someone’s face and they’ll know what to do,” he says. “That puts us, I think, in a very unique position that I don’t think society’s been in before. There’s people who go to college, and there are people who live in
trailer courts, but there is a comparison to where they are because of media. There’s kind of a chance that we’re all catching up with each other.”
But is a culture united by Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer a step forward for humanity? Maybe not, he acknowledges, but he prefers to dwell on the transformative potential of art.
“Take a movie like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ” he says. “There’s nothing really hopeful that you could say about that, but it’s through the craft of what Scorsese accomplished in that film that you walk out feeling elated–and hopeful because you know there are fellow human beings roaming the earth that could put that information together. And you don’t have to be an artist to recognize that, because that movie captured the imaginations of a lot of people who weren’t artists.”
In creating an operatic reflection of the TV wasteland, Rouse thinks “Dennis Cleveland” can have its own kind of saving grace. “Obviously there’s social critique going on in [it],” he admits. “But I’m more interested in finding out why [talk shows] fulfill a need in society. I really believe [“Dennis Cleveland’s”] redemption and its higher level comes through music. It’s the music that makes it hopeful.” “Dennis Cleveland,” Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center,
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, $25. (949) 553-2422. Kristin Hohenadel writes on arts and culture.
Dennis Cleveland By ALAN RICH, November 4, 1999
Orange County Philharmonic Society presents Mikel Rouse’s opera. Cast: Mikel Rouse; Napua Davoy,
Eric Smith, Kate Sullivan, Dan Taylor, Laura Kuhn, Levensky Smith, Andrea Weber, David Barron,
Lindsley Allen, Christa Avalos, Matthew Gardner, Norman Alexander Gibbs, Elsbeth Maidment,
Norman Major III, Jody Marler, Beth Multer, Ryuji Noda, Roman Varshavsky, Brian Collins, Mark Kingsley.
The notion of a cultural kinship between the phenomena of serious opera and television talkshow may not readily occur to the dedicated operaphile or couch potato; yet the considerable and delightful triumph of Mikel Rouse’s “Dennis Cleveland” is in the cementing of just such a relationship. Originally produced and greatly acclaimed –in 1996 at the Kitchen, lower Manhattan’s shrine to the far-beyond–
“Cleveland” arrives this week as one of several enterprises in “Eclectic Orange,” an arts festival that (for the time being, at least) has transformed traditionally cautious Orange County into a hotbed of arts exploration.
Designer John Jesurun has, indeed, converted Costa Mesa’s small Founders Hall into a believable TV studio, festooned with monitors and logos, in which talkshow host Dennis Cleveland (Mikel Rouse) welcomes four couples of lovelorn misfits and sets them to bickering among themselves in a dense, explosive counterpoint. Cleveland, meanwhile, moseys through the audience, among whom are cast members, cued to throw further aspersions on the guests onstage and, in the process, to spill some of their guts into the studio monitors and out to the presumed-spellbound nationwide audience.
The 42-year-old, Missouri-born Rouse has been a fixture in New York’s experimental-music scene through such previous ventures as his “Mikel Rouse Broken Consort,” a multimedia combo, and his rock band Tirez Tirez. For “Cleveland” he has concocted a throbbing, bubbling underpinning of hip-hop, against which his cast members, talented acrobats all both bodily and verbally, battle in wildly
veering rap-style “arias.” One of the planted audience members, Japanese performance artist Ryuji Noda, communicates not with words but with his harmonica, a nice musical touch.
“Cleveland” is actually the centerpiece of an operatic trilogy planned by Rouse as a personal (and mostly devastating) statement on
the tyranny of the media. The first, “Failing Kansas” was a monologue for Rouse himself, against a taped words-and-music collage, on the Kansas murder and retribution detailed in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” The third, “The End of Cinematics,” slated for the Brooklyn Academy’s “Next Wave” in 2001, sets the diverse actions onto screens in a movie multiplex.
This season’s “Eclectic Orange” playbill has offered such diverse elements as Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” blended into Leonard Bernstein’s
video lecture on that work, visiting orchestras from Moscow and Washington, a bluegrass/classical mix titled “Short Trip Home,” an evening of theater melding Canadian and Italian talent into a pageant on nothing less than the history of mankind and still due, on Nov. 16, a first local visit from Les Arts Florissants, the hot-ticket Paris-based Baroque-opera troupe. The event’s sponsors, with media artist
and impresario Dean Corey as spark plug, have their eye on Brooklyn’s multifaceted and greatly
successful festival as inspiration; so far, so good. Opened and reviewed, Nov. 2, 1999, closes Nov. 6.
Review Breaking Down the Barriers
‘Dennis Cleveland’ gives talk shows an exciting spin,
creating a genuine rock opera.
By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic 11/4/99
Watching television is an act of voyeurism. The screen is another window in our homes. We stareat and peer at the world outside. Sometimes we pay attention; just as often, it’s a glowing and gibbering electronic background.
Opera, on the other hand, is an art form that asks us in. Through music we permit the outer world to disappear while we penetrate, possibly even experience, deeper inner lives. When opera comes on television, it can easily lose what it is that makes it opera.
But if opera rarely makes good television, television can make arresting opera, as Mikel Rouse’s “Dennis Cleveland” proved Tuesday night when it began a five-day run in the small black-box Founders Hall of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Rouse, a 42-year-old composer with experience in classical music and art rock, has discovered that the emotional outbursts on a television talk show are not only as powerfully operatic as those at a 19th century party but very similar to those in, say, the parties in “La Traviata.” People blow up, relationships unravel, the crowd takes sides.
“Dennis Cleveland” is not the first opera of a television show; it is not the first opera to use live video; it is not the first opera to find in TV dialogue the seed for operatic utterance. John Moran created a surreal performance-art opera out of the Jack Benny program a decade ago. Peter Sellars would not be Peter Sellars these days if the characters in his opera productions were denied video cameras.
Most importantly, Robert Ashley, in his epic “Perfect Lives,” demonstrated, in an amazing operatic sleight of hand, that bland, banal television characters could grow dimensions.
Rouse dedicated “Dennis Cleveland” to Ashley, and it was first produced three years ago at the Kitchen in New York, where Moran and Ashley are also regulars. But “Dennis Cleveland” is a new evolution of these influences as well as something that we have never really had before–a genuine rock opera. From “Tommy” through “Rent” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” rock music has functioned
the way music does in a Broadway musical: It explains and amplifies character and dramatic situation but does not control and resolve the drama. In “Dennis Cleveland,” music takes charge.
We enter Founders Hall as if members of a studio audience for Jerry or Oprah. The stage is a talk-show set with monitors and video cameras. Rock music plays softly in the background. We are prepped about applause by the crew and the host comes out to give a few words of welcome before the show begins.
Rouse is Dennis–slick, affable, empathetic, handsome. The guests are four couples, a cross-section of Americans and all damaged goods. Other cast members are planted among us in the audience. Much of what comes out of their mouths is actual talk-show dialogue. The setup and the characters are convincing. The music, if you don’t listen too closely, can sometimes trick you into thinking it is pop. There is an incessant drumbeat.
But, in fact, it is all a trick. The words are transformed into poetry. The drama elevates garish television catharsis into the high theater of character transformation and revelation. The music, one only slowly begins to notice, is highly sophisticated, using imaginative harmonies, contrapuntal techniques (even fugue!), complex overlays of rhythm and Minimalist phasing, rap and hip-hop. It is a musical language substantial enough to make statements, direct enough to make theater.
There is also a spectacular fluidity to “Dennis Cleveland.” Characters on stage are individuals who function also as Greek chorus. Their stories are only understood through the comments of the audience members who are ostensibly telling their own. Cleveland, constantly on the move through the audience, acts as everyone’s emotional sponge absorbing psychic hurts, until all these characters come to seem projections of his own psychic disarray. Every barrier you can possibly think of has been broken down–between audience and actors, between pop and art music , between fantasy life and harsh reality, between naturalist theater and surreal poetry.
An inspired cast further helps point “Dennis Cleveland” toward an exciting new future for American opera. Working together brilliantly are television actors, opera singers, Broadway performers, rock musicians, even academics, and some unlikely combinations of the above. Among them, for instance, are David Barron, a composer who has studied with Elliott Carter and performs Sondheim, and the riveting rap artist Eric Smith, lead singer of the Fly Boys. The set and video design are by John Jesurun. “Dennis Cleveland” is part of the Eclectic Orange Festival presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. It was an act of courage and vision to produce it.
“Dennis Cleveland” continues tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m., $25.
Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (949) 553-2424.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
by Alan Rich LA WEEKLY
AT 8, MICHAEL ROUSE CHANGED HIS FIRST NAME TO “Mikel” because, he says, he liked the spelling. At 15, he ran away from home — in the “boot-heel” area of southwestern Missouri — and joined a carnival. “I did all kinds of odd jobs,” he remembers. “I ran the carny tricks, handled the fake hoops, painted, worked out front once in a while. It wasn’t the traditional kind of work, and when I decided to become a composer, I didn’t do that traditionally, either.”
How untraditional? That will easily be proved next week (November 2-6) in the Founders Hall of Costa Mesa’s Performing Arts Center when, as one of the highlights of the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s Eclectic Orange Festival, Rouse’s opera Dennis Cleveland gets its first West Coast performance. It’s an opera, says Rouse, “because you can’t call it anything else.” Actually, it’s an operatic takeoff on another indigenous, entrenched art form, the television talk show — yes, talk show, as in Oprah, Sally or Jerry.
And why not? After all, wrote the astute Peter G. Davis in New York magazine after Rouse’s opera had a well-received run at Manhattan’s The Kitchen, “The whole talk-show ritual, with its aggressive confrontations and confessional aria-and-ensemble format, is already operatic by nature.” In Dennis Cleveland, the invited “guests” form an eight-member chorus onstage, while the eponymous host, played by Rouse himself, talks to the bank of video cameras, which then project his image onto the various monitors and screens in the “studio.” Dennis roams the aisles and spars with other cast members spotted through the audience who stand and hurl challenges at the guests. One member, a Japanese tourist, antagonizes the crowd by insisting on playing his harmonica. Tension mounts; the guests onstage bare their souls-in-torment; the whole audience hankers to join in, and some do. Haven’t you ever wanted to stand up and vent your spleen at Don Giovanni’s duplicity, or perform some CPR to save Aida and Radams from death by suffocation?
It’s more than just talk, of course; Rouse’s jack-of-all-trades music keeps participants on edge, and could do the same for you. To the
background of a rock combo heavy on percussion, the four onstage couples, all of them trapped in an assortment of emotional crises, set their voices into conflict in a complex and tortured ongoing counterpoint. At many points Dennis himself, not quite the master of his destiny, joins them in soul-searching arioso. At the end, as his guests hail their 90 minutes of salvation through the privilege of purging their innards on camera, Dennis is driven to confess that televised reality, shallow though it be, is reality enough for most people. “And the line that I walk is just to calibrate/all the time I spend alone and out of date . . .”
OVER SAVORY NOODLES IN WEST L.A.’S “LITTLER Tokyo,” the 42-year-old Rouse — neatly shirted, shod and necktied, strange getup for a composer known to be most at home among the shaggy hordes of Lower Manhattan — ticks off his own musical origins,
which are widespread. “I’ve been everywhere, at least briefly: Thelonious and Miles certainly at the start. Then there was Stravinsky. Then, John Cage — not so much for the music, which nobody can imitate, but for the permission to do anything, everything. Rap has been a definite influence. I would go so far as to claim hip-hop as the most interesting of all music right now. I’ve never been what you’d call a minimalist — I think my music is too complex harmonically — but Steve Reich’s music also had a big effect on me, the way he can use rhythm as a structural base for even a long piece.”
The son of a Missouri state trooper, Rouse followed his carny career with studies in music and art in Kansas City, formed a band, moved to New York in 1979, studied African drumming and the controversial, math-based compositional methods of Joseph Schillinger (who had also taught George Gershwin). In the mid-1980s his new ensemble, known as the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort (keyboard, bass, drums, and lead guitar or MIDI saxophone), had become a staple of the downtown scene, a strangely suave but exhilarating conflation of Schillinger, atonality and rock. By 1991, Rouse had begun to stir poetry — his own, of course — into the mix.
The renegade Robert Ashley had by then demonstrated that the term “opera” could signify other things than fat sopranos and large orchestras; some of his abrasive scores involved little more than a reading with tape and a few miscellaneous voices. For Rouse, these vocal philosophies became a role model; Dennis Cleveland is dedicated to Ashley. The work is actually the second in a trilogy, each of the three short “operas” set into a frame that reflects the miasmic spread of media madness. Failing Kansas, the first, is based on the true story, novelized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, of the senseless murder of a small-town Kansas family, and the tracking-down, capture and execution of the perpetrators. The work is performed by Rouse alone, assuming the roles of the two murderers and the society around them, reading his convoluted, tortured “counterpoetry” (his own description) on a multitrack tape against a taped counterpoint of unpitched
voices intoning a jumble of images, all to a film by Cliff Baldwin projected in a multidimensional environment.
Dennis Cleveland advances the anti-media attack through the addition of “live” technology, the video cameras grouped on designer John Jesurun’s TV-studio set, which transmute the flesh-and-blood of the human participants into media-ese. “What I’m trying to show here,” says Rouse, “is the way television has become the kind of ceremony we once associated with religion. You could say, in fact, that television is the closest thing to religion that we have today.”
The End of Cinematics, the final work in the trilogy, slated for performance in 2001 as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, is set in an idealized movie theater, and again the line between performers and audience is dimly defined. The participants witness a live performance, actually a number of simultaneous performances taking place, but all of these elements are being filmed and fed onto a large movie screen, blended into other, prerecorded images to create a counterpoint of violent contrasts, of conflicting images
that somehow relate to the same action.
The future? “When we talk about technology,” Rouse says, “most people think ‘computers’ or ‘the Internet.’ As with television, the medium takes precedence over the message. In rushing to claim the latest innovation, too often these days what you see is only the technology at work. If it’s a good painting, you shouldn’t notice the paint . . .
“There’s always some kind of breakthrough, to bring music back to life,” he continues. “Jazz did it; jazz proved that you could have serious musical aspirations and still attract an audience. Minimalism did it; so-called ‘serious’ music was strangling on its own complexity, and the minimalists returned music to simplicity and made it work. In both cases, the timing was just right. Now there’s technology, and I’ve come to regard my recording studio as a musical instrument by itself. Just recently I took a set of string quartets that I composed in 1985, and I sampled them on the computer and recast them as whole new pieces — investigating my own past, you might say.
“There’ll always be concert halls and opera houses, functioning as museums. For me, though, the only valid music is what I can do myself. I come from a background of playing my own music. Now, with my studio, I can go one step further and record my own music. My music is my world, and I live in the middle of it. If I can take it out on tour, as I’m doing now, that’s fine. But the other way, handing the music off to someone else to perform and relinquishing my own role as performer — I would find that pretty exasperating.”
“Isn’t that a kind of isolationism?” I wonder.
“Maybe it is for now,” says Mikel Rouse, “but I’m still young — for a composer, that is. There’s plenty of time.” Ê
OPERA THAT REACHES OUT MUSIC:
Avant-garde work, hosted by its composer, mimics America’s soul-baring talk shows.
2, 1999 By TIMOTHY MANGAN
The Orange County Register ‘Dennis Cleveland’ *
* Who: Mikel Rouse, composer and host
* When: Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.
* Where: Founders Hall* How much: $25 *
Call: (714) 740-7878
Mikel Rouse stands looking into the palm of his hand, where a cell phone refuses to work. He complains to no one in particular that modern contraptions are put on the market too early, before they are tested and perfected.
This is kind of funny, coming from an avant-garde composer. Tall and slender, Rouse, 42, wearing a three-button sport coat, no tie and stylish black-rimmed spectacles, looks every inch the cutting-edge artiste. He is composer –and also host –of the rock-inflected, computer-juiced, multimedia talk-show opera “Dennis Cleveland,” which had its premiere in 1996 at The Kitchen, an alternative Downtown performance space in New York, and which stops for five performances at Founders Hall this week.
Rouse talks a mile a minute but orders coffee anyway as he sits with a reporter. In town to audition singers for a tour of the opera, he is eager to talk about it. “I’m still crazed about ‘Dennis Cleveland,’ ” he says, “because I think it’s the best idea I ever came up with.”
The idea was simple, but dazzlingly so. Fascinated by America’s infatuation with the soul-baring television talk show, Rouse spent several years studying them, recording broadcasts on his VCR at home, and attending New York tapings of Geraldo Rivera and Ricki Lake. “Dennis Cleveland” re-creates the talk-show environment as theater: Actors and singers are planted within the (paying) audience and make
confessionals and accusations; the guests onstage are turned into a choir; video cameras record audience reaction and project them onto TV monitors; Rouse himself serves as the eponymous host and ringmaster.
Rouse’s idea was to break down the “fourth wall” between performance and viewer, to make opera interactive. And if “Dennis Cleveland’s” first performances are any indication, it worked.
“I had people raising their hand to talk,” Rouse says. “I had people asking me when it was going to be aired.
“People came up to me and said ‘I had my speech written and you didn’t call on me.’ ” Non-narrative in form, the libretto, written by the composer, uncannily mimics talk-show lingo, that mixture of victimhood righteousness and not-my-fault name calling. It sounds familiar. “If you don’t love me the way I am then you can go,” chimes the choir.
“My way or the highway straight up!,” asserts Guest No. 1.
“That’s messed up man,” says Guest No. 2.
Along with Ben Neill, Michael Gordon (of the Bang on a Can All-Stars) and John Luther Adams, Rouse is often grouped among the
“totalists,” a loose-knit school of young composers who draw on widely varied musical sources. Rouse counts minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich as major influences, along with hip-hop and other pop music.
“I come out of a very serious tradition, but I don’t know if it’s classical,” Rouse says. “I take pop music very seriously. I know people, including myself, who will obsess about a sound or something in a mix (of a pop song) the same way that an ivory-tower composer is obsessing about whether he should make a note flat.”
A TELEVISION ADDICT
Indeed, growing up in rural Missouri, the son of a state trooper, Rouse was first attracted to rock and jazz. It wasn’t until he attended the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri (simultaneously attending the Kansas City Art Institute across the street, where he got a degree in filmmaking), that he was seriously exposed to the avant-garde currents in classical music. His teacher there, Raymond Luedeke, was a disciple of George Crumb.
The music of “Dennis Cleveland” sounds like latter-day Talking Heads, though, with a steady rock beat pulsing under a complex layering of rhythmic talking, surreal choir chants and catchy jingles. Rouse doesn’t dispute the Talking Heads comparison –he actually headed a rock band, Tirez Tirez, that opened for the group in Kansas City –but there is a difference, he says. On top of the foursquare beat, Rouse sets multiple meters at cross purposes, “five against seven against nine so that they make a kind of constant ongoing shift in terms of their cycles.”
In 1979, Rouse moved to New York City, where he studied African and other world music and eventually formed Broken Consort, a contemporary chamber ensemble that became a regular in the Downtown music scene and produced numerous recordings.
“Dennis Cleveland” is actually the second opera of a projected multimedia trilogy, the first of which was “Failing Kansas” (1994), a treatment of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” with Rouse playing all the roles. (“The End of Cinematics,” the final installment,
is scheduled for performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2000.)
With these operas, Rouse feels that he has both come of age and found his voice. “I had been building my reputation as a chamber music composer and doing really well, but I just knew something wasn’t right. I wasn’t using my full potential.
“My background is not just in music, it’s in theater, in filmmaking. And I also studied painting at the Art Institute. So I sort of came to the idea that I wanted to do these entire, all-encompassing pieces.”
What’s more, the opera embraces a passion that Rouse, as a member of New York’s artistic intelligentsia, wasn’t formerly willing to admit to. “I’ve always been a television addict. And also very ashamed of it.” He says that when he heard that painter Robert Rauschenberg always worked with the television on, he took heart. “I thought, OK, that was my rationalization.”
The idea of reaching a large audience with his work is important to Rouse; that is why he chose the talk-show format. It’s something all audiences are familiar with, comfortable with. “By wrapping them in this environment, they instantly feel like, ‘Oh, I get this. I know what’s going on.’ ”
For Rouse, it’s just a setup. “Then you can start hitting them with some really interesting stuff.”
Rouse’s Triumphant “Dennis Cleveland”
by Alan Rich
November 12-18, 1999
THE NOTION OF A CULTURAL KINSHIP between the phenomena of serious opera and television talk show may not readily occur to the dedicated operaphile or couch potato, yet the considerable and delightful triumph of Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland — most adventurous of all the “Eclectic Orange” offerings — is in the cementing of just such a
relationship. Originally produced — and greatly acclaimed — in 1996 at the Kitchen, lower Manhattan’s shrine to the far-beyond, Cleveland’s five-night run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was enough in itself to transform that traditionally cautious venue into a hotbed of arts exploration.
Designer John Jesurun converted the Center’s small Founders Hall into a believable TV studio, festooned with monitors and logos, in which talk-show host Dennis Cleveland (Rouse himself) welcomed four couples of lovelorn misfits and set them to bickering among themselves in a dense, explosive counterpoint. Cleveland, meanwhile, moseyed around through the audience, several of which were also cast members, cued to cast further aspersions on the guests onstage and, in the process, to spill some of their guts into the studio monitors and out to the presumed-spellbound nationwide audience.
Maybe it’s an opera, maybe something else for which no name has yet been coined; whatever, I found the sheer energy in Cleveland irresistible, exhilarating. The vocal lines — sung, spoken, sometimes yelled — ride on a throbbing, bubbling taped underpinning of hip-hop. The cast, each in his/her own way phenomenally adept at acrobatics both verbal and bodily, carried out their special battles in wildly veering rap-style “arias.” One of the planted audience members, Japanese performance artist Ryuji Noda, communicated not with words but with his harmonica, a nice musical touch, a gleaming, floating descant.
This season’s “Eclectic Orange” playbill has offered such diverse elements as Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex blended into the seductive doublethink of a filmed Leonard Bernstein lecture on that work, visiting orchestras from Moscow and Washington, a bluegrass/classical
mix titled Short Trip Home, an evening of theater melding Canadian and Italian talent into a pageant on nothing less than the History of Mankind, and — still due, on November 16 — a first-ever local visit from Les Arts Florissants, the hot-ticket Paris-based baroque-opera troupe. The event’s sponsors, with media artist and impresario Dean Corey as spark plug, have their eyes on Brooklyn’s multifaceted and greatly successful “Next Wave” festival as inspiration; so far, so good.
MUSIC | REVIEW Oct 29 – Nov 4, 1999 OC WEEKLY
Popera Dennis Cleveland ain’t no stinkin’ Traviata by David Bundler
Confession used to mean you sat in a small wooden box, talked through a screen, exposed your sins and received absolution from a priest before your maker and the heavenly host. In the ’90s, you’re received through a small cable box and exposed on a TV screen; you boast your conquests and get dissed by a hellacious talk-show host before your makeover in front of 30 million voyeurs.
Spilling your guts to omniscient sages like Jerry Springer, Maury Povich or Geraldo Rivera probably does nothing for the soul, but it’s gold for network ratings. Whether it works for opera is something we’ll see this week, when the Philharmonic Society hosts the talked-about talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland by Mikel Rouse, one of the young lions of New York’s postmodern, post-minimalist Downtown music movement. The society bills it as “Opera meets Oprah.” Ain’t dat cute?
Directed by Rouse with set design by “MacArthur genius” John Jesurun, it’s a mildly funny multimedia production staged as a
live-to-tape talk show. Rouse also plays the role of Cleveland like a smooth, slimy evangelist/freak-show barker. Opera choristers act as bigmouth panelists, while locally recruited singers–some from the Orange County High School of the Arts–are audience plants. Live shots of principals and the studio audience get flashed onto video monitors suspended all around–the better to blur that division between the voyeurs and the viewed. And, against expectations, the musical language of Dennis Cleveland is way more urban rock than “operatic.”
“I’m really interested in breaking opera out of the sort of European 19th-century mold,” says the 42-year-old composer,
“both in instrumentation and in presentation away from the proscenium stage.”
In RouseÕs libretto, nobody gets to say, “You go, girl!” or “Kick ’em to the curb!” But he did his homework, sitting in on enough Ricki
and Montel tapings to capture that “My way or the highway!” sensibility. When it premiered at the Kitchen in Manhattan three years ago, Kyle Gann of the Village Voice couldn’t contain his ecstatic pro-PoMo promo: “The most exciting and innovative new opera since Einstein on the Beach.” Let’s just say it’s no stinkin’ Traviata.
As stagecraft, Dennis is mass-culture theater in the tradition of ’80s and early ’90s operas like Nixon in China, Jackie O, Harvey Milk and X (as in Malcolm), but without the historical cult of celebrity. Lee Hoiby’s foodie opera after a Julia Child episode, Bon Appetit!, comes close, but Dennis is hipper and more serious. It’s the second in a trilogy that includes Rouse’s earlier Failing Kansas (based on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) and The End of Cinematics (on the influence of corporate-driven entertainment on modern culture).
As a child of the late ’50s, television was a big-time influence on Rouse. But he has a brainy slant on it from the writings of Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul, who compares the redundant formulas of standard TV fare to religious rites and rituals–especially in the confessional nature of talk shows.
“What runs through Dennis Cleveland is a certain kind of spirituality that’s seen through the prism of popular culture,” Rouse explains. “Is that an answer? Is the media the new spirituality? Is the repetitiveness of television fulfilling that ritualistic aspect that you used to
get from a Chinese ceremony or a Catholic Mass?”
Loaded questions coming from a strong-willed type like Rouse. Born Michael Rouse, he changed the spelling (but not the pronunciation) of his name in the third grade. He grew up in the boot-heel region of Missouri near the Arkansas border and in his teens started a Talking Heads clone band called Tirez Tirez that put out a worthy pop album in Against All Flags. But it was his 1984 piece, Quorum, scored entirely for Linn drum machine, that put him on the map as a serious composer. The late choreographer Ulysses Dove used it in his Vespers, and it’s been in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertoire ever since.
A formally trained composer and visual artist, Rouse (along with the likes of Ben Neill, Art Jarvinen, Lois Vierk, John Luther Adams, Rhys Chatham and Bill Duckworth) is linked to the rock-influenced, post-minimalist subgenre called “totalism” that mixes the harmonic complexity of classical with the texture and rhythm of Asian and African music. Against the advice of academic friends who said he was “flushing his career down the toilet,” Rouse’s music embraces rock unambiguously.
“I have to address where I came from,” he says. “[It was] a place where there was a lot of rock music, a lot of jazz, country and western. You go to a conservatory. You come to New York. You want to be sophisticated and fairly intelligent. But at the end of the day, whether you know it or not, youÕre either trying to escape from what you really are, or you’re trying to ignore it.”
The urban groove in Dennis, for instance, runs deep, so that a number like “Beautiful Murders” wouldn’t sound out of place on a progressive pop radio station. “The music that I like most right now in the past five years is hip-hop,” says Rouse. “It was probably
the first music since I was a kid that made people say, ‘Well, that’s not music!’ So I trust that response to mean that obviously hip-hop has had a huge cultural effect.”
You can hear that impact in the complexity of his word-driven music, or “counterpoetry.” Rouse writes his own lyrics, recited in a layered counterpoint of mixed meters that wildly changes the meanings. He says he hated the style at first but eventually bonded with it. Wrestling with new styles, though, isn’t as bad as suffering from postmodern diseaseÑi.e., a conflicted love-hate relationship with nostalgia,
extending even to his beloved rock & roll.
“It’s not like I’m saying rock’s great,” he demurs. “Quite frankly, I wish it was dead because that was music from my generation. One of the reasons I like hip-hop so much is because it feels like the first time that we’re finally getting away from the consumer strangulation that rock and pop culture have put on society.”
Dennis Cleveland has its West Coast premiere at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing
Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (949) 553-2422. Tues.-Sat., Nov. 6, 8 p.m. $25.