An Opera That’s a Talk Show That’s a Philosophy
By KYLE GANN
New York Times. April 28, 2002
Chris Brown A scene from Mikel Rouse’s talk-show opera “Dennis Cleveland” last year in Urbana, Ill.: however much the work may feel like a free-for-all, it is anything but.
Arts & Leisure
“IF you don’t love me the way I am, then you can go,” shouts a character in Mikel Rouse’s opera “Dennis Cleveland.” But there is no response, just a series of non sequitur emotive sound bites: “My way or the highway, straight up!” “Open up, open up to me.” “I know, but she’s changed on me.” “Dennis Cleveland” is a depiction of an unreal world: it’s an opera in the form of a talk show, and don’t let the word “opera” fool you, because there’s a rock beat throughout. Mr. Rouse himself plays the suave host, Dennis Cleveland: part television Buddha, part snake-oil salesman, part tortured soul.
The piece played to sold-out audiences in its premiere run, at the Kitchen in 1996, and it returns on Wednesday, this time at the John Jay College Theater as part of the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine about a second talk-show opera, Richard Thomas’s “Jerry Springer,” Marshall Sella called “Dennis Cleveland” “cryptic” and “arcane.” Quite the contrary, the work – at least as it was performed at the Kitchen, and it was said to be the first show there successful enough to attract scalpers – is to conventional opera what a ferris wheel is to sitting in the park. You’re listening in the audience, and suddenly Mr. Rouse, playing the talk-show host, walks up and sticks the microphone in the face of the person next to you, who stands up and sings. Pretty soon you’re looking at all your neighbors with suspicion: did they pay to see the show, or are they in the cast? You might even start to fear that Mr. Rouse/Dennis will stick the mike in your face, and you’ll have to come up with a story for the folks.
In fact, there have been performances – among the productions so far in New York, Los Angeles, Urbana, Ill., and Perth, Australia -in which nonperformers have tried to join the show, jumping in to improvise. Perhaps no other opera has ever so effectively broken down the fourth wall and made the audience feel so vulnerably part of the production. Yet however much “Dennis Cleveland” may feel like a free-for-all, it is anything but. Like the downtown-opera pioneer Robert Ashley, to whom the work is dedicated, Mr. Rouse makes music that sounds free and easy and pop but is actually carefully structured. Large-scale cross-rhythms underpin the entire work. At one point, for instance, you’ll hear a commercial jingle (“And leave off the last S for savings”) repeat every 9 beats as a chant on the word “Money” repeats every 10 beats, the two phrases going out of phase. One scene, called “Soul Train,” is actually a large tempo canon -different voices singing the same, slow melody in two tempos at once -punctuated by percussion phrases recurring every 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 beats.
If you were to chart out all the rhythms on graph paper, it would look like something out of Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps.” Yet while Mr. Rouse’s subtleties create a large-scale liveliness, most audience members will presumably remain oblivious to them, swept along by the 4/4 pop beat on the surface. Mr. Rouse, 45, who was born in rural Missouri and has lived in New York since the late 70’s, represents a high point in a new type of artist that has emerged only in recent decades: the composer as sound engineer. Increasingly in his music (his recent CD “Cameraworld” on Exit Music is a particularly intricate example), there is a surface structure indistinguishable from that of a pop song: rock beat, lyrics, verse, chorus. But underneath are layers and layers of other music in growing complexity: conflicting rhythmic patterns, samples, additional lyrics by different singers, echoes and anticipations of the surface music.
That such complexity doesn’t turn to muddy chaos is a tribute to Mr. Rouse’s skills as a producer. Through digital recording technology, he has a way of making textures transparent and locating sounds in aural space so that it becomes possible to follow several streams at once. Listeners to “Dennis Cleveland,” for example, may notice a layer of samples (recorded excerpts) from actual talk shows that Mr. Rouse recorded: “Geraldo,” “Ricki Lake,” “The Gordon Elliott Show.” This ability puts Mr. Rouse at the forefront of a movement among composers of his generation, especially those in New York, that has in some circles acquired the contentious name Totalism. The idea is that -unlike composers a generation before, who tended to set their works off in a world uncontaminated by pop culture – the Totalists want it both ways: they want their music to be immediately appealing to the average person (usually defined as “pop music fan”), but they also want to invest it with all the intricacy of jazz, serialism, Indian and African and Indonesian styles. For the Totalists, the answer is usually to keep the harmony simple (though not necessarily consonant) and store the complexity in the rhythms and tempo structures, often in the background. For Mr. Rouse, working more with electronics than with acoustic musicians, that background is many-layered.
Ultimately, so is the meaning of “Dennis Cleveland.” On the surface, it’s a talk show, and there is the fun of watching couples argue onstage or audience members make stupid points and spout grotesque confessions. (Listen for risque snippets of Rouse autobiography.) Yet like the music itself, the narrative is couched in a deeper structure. The opera is Mr. Rouse’s response to a book that had wide influence after its publication in 1992, especially outside the United States: “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by the Canadian novelist and polymath John Ralston Saul. Mr. Saul diagnosed the ills of Western society as an overreliance on reason, method and management techniques at the expense of emotion, spirituality, humanitarianism and common sense. (Mr. Saul, a controversial figure in Canadian politics, attended the 1996 premiere of “Dennis Cleveland” and is said to be planning to attend again.) Like Mr. Saul – but more elliptically, because he is speaking in lyrics rather than arguments – Mr. Rouse goes through one sector of society after another, cutting deeply into the very culture of money, celebrity and hype that he pretends to celebrate:
This time the murders that you worship from afar Gonna join you in the bedroom, maybe meet you at the bar. . . . This time the finger that I put into the pie ‘Sgonna be the last reminder of the simple corporate lie.
“Dennis Cleveland” undermines commercialism by pretending to flow with it. Still, by the opera’s end you get a sense that the title character is deeply troubled by his own emptiness, even though it is that emptiness that makes him such a facile receptacle for the fantasies of his talk-show guests. It will be interesting to see whether Lincoln Center can maintain the work’s aura of unpredictability. Mr. Rouse, for his part, has moved on to other projects, and is turning out operas, music theater works and even films faster than he can get them produced and screened: “The End of Cinematics,” “Cameraworld,” “Funding.” These new pieces are sometimes subtler, more multilayered, perhaps deeper. But “Dennis Cleveland” remains a populist high point for a composer many believe to be the best of his generation.
Dennis Cleveland John Jay College Theater, 10th Avenue at 59th Street. Wednesday through next Sunday. Kyle Gann, a composer, teaches at Bard College and writes about new music for The Village Voice.
New York Magazine
Performance: Dennis Cleveland
By ALICIA ZUCKERMAN
Performance: Dennis Cleveland
Mikel Rouse chose the title of his rock-influenced “talk-show opera,” Dennis Cleveland, in which he plays the show’s titular host at the John Jay College Theater this week, after hearing it in his sleep. (The work, which premiered to raves from critics of all genres at the Kitchen in 1996, predates Jerry Springer: The Opera, recently written up in the Times.)
Though Rouse admits that the subject makes it impossible to avoid some elements of farce, it’s by no means the work’s raison d’etre: “I wasn’t really interested in directing a piece that was kitsch or parody, because you could get that from Saturday Night Live,” he says. “I wanted . . . to explode the whole idea of European proscenium-based opera.”
Partly inspired by John Ralston Saul’s book Voltaire’s Bastards, it’s full of sociological observation and inquiry about television as ritual, using electronic music, chant, and pulsing rhythms. “That word — opera — that is like a four-letter word,” notes the 45-year-old composer-filmmaker, offering the opinion that younger audiences won’t buy the notion that people just burst into song at odd moments. Hence the talk-show format, where it’s easier to suspend disbelief. Don’t be surprised if there’s audience participation. — ALICIA ZUCKERMAN John Jay College Theater Amsterdam Ave. and 58th St. 212-721-6500 May 4 May 5 at 3. Photograph by www.chrisbrownphoto.com.
The New Yorker
MIKEL ROUSE’S “DENNIS CLEVELAND”
Rouse’s piece, a limpid, seamless flow of scenes based on dance rhythms, sounds like the work of a modern-day Rameau, with funk beats, African polyrhythms, and Reichian tape loops replacing the courtly sweep of gavottes and minuets. But if the French master aspired merely to entertain, Rouse has loftier ambitions: his real-time “talk-show opera” is an “Elmer Gantry”-like expose of the vacuity and voyeurism of modern television culture. Rouse plays the show’s host, a Jerry Springer type with a mystical streak; other cast members are placed in the audience or line up onstage as the show’s guests. John Jesurun designed the set, complete with TV cameras, cue cards, applause signs (audience participation is essential), and the harsh glare of studio lighting. (John Jay Theatre, Tenth Ave. at 58th St. 721-6500. May 1-4 at 8 and May 4-5 at 3.)
April 15, 2002, Monday The Classical Score
By STEVE SMITH, Billboard A ROUSE-ING BODY OF WORK:
A billboard welcoming an experimental composer to town might be just about the last thing you’d expect to see alongside a rural highway in Louisiana, but that’s what greeted Mikel Rouse on Highway 20, just outside of Ruston. Community leaders, including the mayor, turned up to welcome Rouse, who will be collaborating in coming months with the North Central Louisiana Arts Council and local music students during a residency sponsored by Meet the Composer. Ruston may be well off the beaten path for most avant-garde composers, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch at all for Rouse, who has spent the past 20 years forging unique artistic partnerships and blending disparate elements into a distinctive body of work.
Born in 1957 in St. Louis, Rouse came to New York in 1978, where he participated in the flowering of the downtown arts scene. With his Broken Consort — a chamber ensemble that included keyboards, electric guitar, bass, woodwinds and percussion — he crafted music that drew upon Stravinsky, minimalism, and contemporary pop. Like many of his contemporaries, Rouse self-released his earliest recordings, which were acclaimed by local classical and pop critics alike. Those early lessons in self-sufficiency served him well: After years of working with independent labels, Rouse once again has taken matters into his own hands.
Two years ago he founded a new label, Exitmusic, and began to sell discs through his Web site, mikelrouse.com. Now, with a high-profile production of his audacious talk-show opera, ” Dennis Cleveland, ” coming up at New York’s Lincoln Center May 1-5, Rouse is readying a flurry of new recordings and reissues on Exitmusic. He has also signed with online distributor the Orchard to make his discs available through major e-commerce Web sites. Rouse relaunched his label with a trio of releases, including a remastered reissue of his moving, poetic, one-man opera “Failing Kansas,” based on Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” The work marked a personal turning point for the composer.”I wasn’t born in Europe; I don’t have all that 12-tone angst in my blood,” he explains. “I grew up in the South, and I listened to mostly rock music and jazz and a lot of country, because that’s what was there. I’d done pop music and I’d also done chamber music, but ‘Failing Kansas’ was my first attempt at merging these things in an un-self-conscious way.” Listeners coming to “Failing Kansas” expecting flowing arias and other operatic conventions are in for a shock.
Instead of singing, Rouse overdubs his spoken voice in multiple layers, a technique he refers to as “counterpoetry.” He backs his unaffected delivery with surging, deceptively complex rhythms. Rouse continued to expand the style in his two subsequent operas, ” Dennis Cleveland” and “The End of Cinematics.” Rouse eventually realized that his counterpoetry was not so far removed from rap. Accordingly, the songs on a new recording, “Cameraworld,” move to a decidedly contemporary beat. “My music is obviously denser [than rap ]and more structured in terms of the counterpoint, but it’s still an oral tradition,” Rouse says. “I dived into hip-hop and discovered people like Slick Rick and all this stuff that is just masterfully done. Cameraworld is an homage to that.”
Most ambitious of all is Rouse’s third Exitmusic release, a DVD-Video of his homemade digital film, “Funding,” a haunting, occasionally embittered series of glimpses into the lives of five New Yorkers left behind during the economic boom of the ’90s. Still, it’s just the tip of the iceberg: Later this year, he plans to release a two-CD anthology of his early works and another new album, “Test Tones.” Next year, he intends to issue a remastered version of ” Dennis Cleveland” (originally issued on New World in 1996) and a recording of “The End of Cinematics.” “A lot of things [like ]distribution through online services weren’t really happening yet when I started Exitmusic,” Rouse says. “I may have been doing it just a little bit too fast! But I’ve been very lucky — over a 20-year recording career, I’ve actually retained the rights to my masters. I’ve been slowly, painstakingly doing a conversion process to transfer it all to digital format, and I intend to rerelease all of it.”
New York Magazine
Classical music American Beauties
Is homegrown opera — too often derided — finally coming into its own? Three works, showing great promise in disparate musical styles, suggest the answer is . . . maybe. BY PETER G. DAVIS
Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland does break new ground. This 90-minute opera in the form of a TV talk show seemed just as edgy and timely at the John Jay College Theater, presented as part of Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series, as it did six years ago at the Kitchen. It was clever of Rouse to notice that the whole talk-show ritual is already operatic, what with its aggressive confrontations and confessional aria-and-ensemble format.
Beyond that, he makes theatrical capital from another feature peculiar to talk shows, namely, the way in which the guests and the audience function as two competing worlds controlled and manipulated by the officiating host, in this case a smooth sleaze named Dennis Cleveland and played by Rouse himself. Under the constant glare of typical television-studio lighting and the prying eyes of myriad TV monitors (John Jesurun’s inspired set and video design are now even more unrelentingly in-your-face than at the Kitchen), the show works up to its harrowing finale, a chilling anthem hailing the promise of salvation through popular culture.
The musical fabric of the work is carefully organized from the many different sources that have influenced composers of Rouse’s generation: rock, serialism, rhythmic phasing, rap, a variety of world musics, jazz, minimalism, heavy metal, you name it. Rouse has added his own voice to the mix, a technique involving multiple unpitched voices moving in strict metric counterpoint. Listening to it all come together is fascinating as an abstract musical experience, but the total package never loses sight of its theatrical mission — a real opera, in other words, and one that takes the form to a new place.
Why Mikel Rouse is Becoming an Enduring Master
by Rita Kohn
When Mikel Rouse takes over New York City’s John Jay College Theater as the charismatic TV talk-show host, Dennis Cleveland, in early May 2002, audience members will be experiencing the tip of a one-of-a-kind creative iceberg. An interactive, multimedia, contemporary opera existing simultaneously as live performance and as live TV production, it’s cresting into vision atop Rouse’s solid twenty-year composing, directing and acting career. Dennis Cleveland is conceived, directed and written (music and libretto) by Rouse.
Set entirely on a television talk show in the late Twentieth Century, it’s the second opera in a trilogy on contemporary incidents. Failing Kansas, the first, is based on events surrounding the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, “and inspired by the examination of those events in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” explains Rouse. The End of Cinematics, the third, explores the nature of corporate entertainment. The protagonist, Dennis Cleveland, is the catalyst and provocateur of the opera as well as the vehicle through which the story of the opera is told. “The various soloists (placed in the audience) and chorus (guests who appear onstage) are linked together by the talk-show host,” states Rouse, in program notes. “Though the guests appear to be telling their own stories of lost love, obsession, crimes and regrets, what soon becomes clear is they are telling the story of Dennis Cleveland as well.
“Like the various talk shows that abound worldwide, the audience and the stage become one under the constant unrelenting television studio lighting. What I’m trying to show here is the way television has become the kind of ceremony we once associated with religion.” Dennis Cleveland cast/crew member holds Applause sign. Image courtesy Mikel Rouse / Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Rouse has been described as “drawing an eloquent musical idiom from the popular vernacular. He watches TV, he observes couples at greasy spoons, and he makes his art from what he sees and hears. At any given measure his songs seem to fit pop genres, yet their lyrics are embedded within dauntingly complex rhythmic structures,” reads the introduction to the compact disc.
“Dennis Cleveland advances Rouse’s commitment to the use of electronic music technology as an alternative to historical methods of sound reproduction in performance,” comments Marian Skokan, manager of publicity at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Marshall Sella, writing in the New York Times Magazine, March 17, 2002, cites Rouse’s unique quality as a seeming hindrance to accessibility for a diverse audience. On the other hand, an eye.net commentary in March 1997 states, “Too few musical works address the way we live as directly as Dennis Cleveland does; too few are brave or smart enough to question the collective dreams sold to us on a daily basis.” “Maybe it’s an opera, maybe it’s something else for which no name has yet been coined; whatever, I found [Cleveland] irresistible, exhilarating,” said the LA Weekly reviewer for the November 1999 issue. Kyle Gann of The Village Voice cited Dennis Cleveland as “the most exciting and innovative opera since Einstein on the Beach,” following Cleveland’s 1996 New York premier at The Kitchen.
However, despite critical acclaim from reviewers and audience members alike, no other producer in New York clamored to move the show to a larger venue. “It languished for two years before Dean Corey and the Eclectic Orange Festival helped bring it back to life,” recalls Rouse, “[but] the tireless efforts of Mike Ross, [director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts] and the Krannert Center brought Dennis Cleveland to the present level of production.” And therein lies the compelling reason for looking below the surface of a strikingly original American composer’s work. Mikel Rouse is becoming equally known for creating career and educational opportunities for emerging professional artists at colleges and universities and for at-risk high school students. In April 2001, when the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign produced the Midwest premiere of Dennis Cleveland, officials at the U of I declared it “a perfect vehicle for Krannert Center’s dual mission of education and presentation.” “Krannert really took Dennis Cleveland to another level,” explains Mary Anne Lewis, Mikel Rouse productions’ spokesperson.
And it is this production format that is traveling back to New York and the John Jay Theater. “The challenge was in recreating the feel of a television studio – a seamless environment between the ‘onstage’ elements of the opera and the ‘TV studio audience’ in the theater,” recounts Tammey Kikta, public information manager at the Krannert Center. The opera is staged as a television talk show. Image courtesy Mikel Rouse / Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. “The entire theater is the set of the Dennis Cleveland Show, complete with video monitors, teleprompters and camera people showing live close-ups and audience reactions. Rouse, playing the slick Dennis Cleveland – half host, half-televangelist – and mobile camera people must be able to move freely throughout the theater. The ninety-minute musical score is pre-recorded, but all singing and speaking is live in the moment of each performance, as is the video mix.”
Kikta describes Dennis Cleveland “coming to life at Krannert Center through the collaborative efforts of Rouse and New York-based scenic designer/video producer John Jesurun; an eight-member ensemble of professional actors/singers from New York; the University of Illinois Department of Theatre faculty, staff and students in design, management, and acting; professional production staff members of Krannert Center; singers from the U of I School of Music Opera Program; and U of I College of Communications students and faculty in television production and videography.” Added to the Urbana-Champaign mix were personnel and technical assistance from public television station WILL-TV and local CBS affiliate WCIA-TV. “The thing that was so unexpected about Dennis Cleveland is the good will it engenders,” commented Rouse in an e-mail exchange. “Every crew member, musician and actor has spoken about what this project did for them, in terms of changing the way they think about collaboration, performance, and art in general. Of course, the Krannert experience was even more exceptional. Mike Ross [Krannert Center director] and the whole Krannert team were looking for a way to merge many departments that hadn’t worked together before. A lot of the credit goes to them for wanting to break the mold.
I’m also very proud that students and people from Krannert have continued to work on the show. Most notably, CarolynAnn Cubit has worked with me in numerous productions since the Dennis Cleveland shows at Krannert.” What makes this experience unique is its blend of presenting with producing. Mikel Rouse came with his already tested direction of the work and a core company of actors from the original production. John Jesurun came with his set and video design, for the Krannert designers to enlarge upon and adapt – to the Tryon Festival Theatre in Urbana, the John Jay in New York, as well as any other presenting house in the future. How and why this Midwest-East connection came about is as much Dr. Mike Ross’s story as it is Mikel Rouse’s. “Mike Ross brought Dennis Cleveland in,” affirms Tammy Kikta. “Mike and Jon Nakagawa at Lincoln Center worked this project out together.” Ross came to Krannert Center as its director in 1997, from heading up the Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York City.
He remains active as a composer. His associations with a wide range of national and international organizations place him in the company of other people daring to step out of prescribed boxes. Krannert’s entire history has been interlaced with cutting-edge technology, with staff members who revel in being the first to attempt and carry out new challenges in production and presentation of performing arts. The Center is a laboratory for about 1,000 students in theater, dance and music pursuing bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees in various disciplines, says Kikta. At any one time, two or three productions might be in performance, ten to twenty in rehearsal, and six to eight under construction. “In addition to this intense resident production schedule, Krannert Center also hosts touring productions throughout the academic year.”
But what makes this kind of collaboration possible is Krannert and Lincoln Center being part of the national association of arts and presenters with Arts4All, Ltd. A K-12 interactive digital arts and arts education content developer and distributor, Arts4All videoconferencing technology enabled Krannert and John Jay personnel to “speak” with each other without ever having physically to travel to each other’s sites. Krannert’s design and construction simply had to fit comfortably, if not flawlessly, into the John Jay. “My theater is a pure road-show house,” says Randall Etheredge, technical director of the John Jay. “We load shows in and out back-to-back. Lincoln Center is producing in the John Jay. [I] didn’t know much about Dennis Cleveland but the idea is to turn the theater into a TV studio.”
Etheredge and members of his staff made the short trip from the John Jay to Lincoln Center where its live hookup with Krannert enabled Krannert designers to show accurately exactly what the theater looked like during production. “I’ve had many videoconferences in my life, and even with a slight delay, it was virtually real time and with great clarity for details,” said Etheredge during a telephone interview from his New York City office. “Krannert was able to show accurately everything I had questions about and certainly everything I needed to know about for any special preparations prior to the load in during mid April. When I asked people for specifics, they were able to aim a camera to show precisely, accurately.” “There are different kinds of energies,” said Mike Ross during an interview at the Krannert Center. “Context is the energizing factor. I just love the unexpected energy coming through this technology. Krannert Center needs to be engaged in technologies on all fronts – to enhance education, build and retain audiences and advance the arts and artists. We are located geographically in a place that doesn’t bring [national] artists in readily,” acknowledges Ross. “Every experience with Arts4All has been different. One of our dreams is to be able to provide source material.” With Dennis Cleveland, part of this dream is awakening.
However, the physical applications are not the only aspects of production moving to New York. So are some of U of I’s MFA students and graduates, including Nicholas Russo as one of the two dozen cast members, lighting designer Andrew Duff, costumes designed by Mary Nemecek Peterson, and the newly married CarolynAnn Cubit-Tsutsui as production stage manager. CarolynAnn was a third-year MFA candidate in stage management when she stage-managed Dennis Cleveland at Krannert. “Mikel was so impressed with her, he invited her to continue as Dennis Cleveland stage manager for Lincoln Center; actually, to be production stage manager for all of his productions immediately underway,” says Mary Anne Lewis. With the ink on her MFA hardly dry, Cubit-Tsutsui is an established professional. During a telephone interview from her New York City home, Cubit-Tsutsui admits it’s kind of a giddy experience. “I was lucky enough to be chosen to work on Dennis Cleveland. [In Illinois] a year and a half in advance of the April 12 and 13, 2001 performance dates I started production work with Mikel and John [Jesurun]. I adored working with them. When you do a show you fall in love with, that wipes you off your feet, you put in a lot of hard work. I put in 200 per cent,” states Cubit-Tsutsui. (John Jesurun received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in part for his work on Dennis Cleveland.) With talk of the show moving to the John Jay during 2002, Cubit-Tsutsui says she “happened to talk to Mikel Rouse,” confiding in him she was trying to decide between Chicago and New York for her career move. “‘I want first dibs on you,’ is what he said,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘You’ve got me.’ I now work for Mikel Rouse for all of his shows.” Cubit-Tsutsui describes her University of Illinois experience as “beyond the best of both worlds” with the hands-on opportunities at Krannert coupled with the academic program through the theater department. “I lay it on Mike Ross,” she says. “He sees and makes opportunities. Then it’s up to individual students to grab on to opportunities within the context he provides.”
Equal praise slips onto Mikel Rouse from Cubit-Tsutsui. She cites his loyalty to those with whom he has worked previously, and to the fair and open way he treats students just as he does seasoned professionals. “Mikel is the most generous person,” states Mary Anne Lewis, who also serves as project director for “Meet the Composer/New Residency” in Ruston, Louisiana, where Rouse currently is completing the first of a three-year initiative. “Mikel takes students on, gives them his time to help them learn about the business, gives them credit for their contributions. It’s been a struggle for him getting all of his work accepted. Knowing this, he gives back. He’s making [the system] work for young people.” Image courtesy Mikel Rouse / Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. For the Krannert Center production, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students auditioned for the acting roles of people planted in the audience. Rouse made those choices. On the other hand, department of theater faculty and Krannert technical staff members designated students who would work on the production and design. While most will not physically be going to New York, their names remain part of the ongoing list of credits. For the past year, the Dennis Cleveland set and costumes have been stored at Krannert Center. When they are loaded onto the truck on its way to the John Jay, Andrew Duff, now a third-year MFA candidate in lighting design, will be on hand to assist and will himself be making the trip. It’s the kind of opportunity you just say thank you for, quipped Duff during an interview at Krannert Center. It’s been a huge learning experience agreed four members of the Krannert staff during a recent interview. They each talked about how both the Dennis Cleveland experience and Arts4All opportunities are influencing work at the Center and benefiting students. Nevertheless, for technical director Tom Korder, audio director Jon Schoenoff, lighting director Michael Williams and events coordinator Stephen Cummins, this was only one of many assignments they had to deal with simultaneously. Randy deCelle, department of theater professor of theater technology, recalled how a web diary was created in 2001 to keep the campus and community apprised of what was going on for this unique project.
It not only documented the process as an invaluable tool for any touring company, but it became a marketing device to entice students to attend something they’d never before heard of. “The University of Illinois has stepped into specialization in the arts. We’re being at the forefront of mechanization, but we’re also a mix of old and new, training our students for all eventualities. There are different levels of creativity. We train people for realities of what’s in any particular theater. So no matter what technology is available, keeping it simple is the best advice,” said deCelle, adding “I’m trying to get people not to be afraid. Dennis Cleveland is a particular experience. It means a lot to all of us to have been a part of it.” Mikel Rouse as talk-show host Dennis Cleveland, seen on one of the TV studio video screens. Image courtesy Mikel Rouse / Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. A child of the heartland, Mikel Rouse definitely is self-motivated, constantly seeking ways to connect classical with contemporary, old expectations with new technologies for both the themes and techniques of his work. Rouse moved to New York from Missouri in 1979. At the University of Missouri he had studied film with Larry Hope and Stan Brakhage and music composition with Raymond Luidicke and Leroy Pogemiller. In New York City he immersed himself in African and other world musics, commenced study of the Schillinger Method of Composition and formed the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort, a contemporary chamber ensemble consisting of keyboard, electric guitar/bass, woodwinds, and percussion. With Etudes, in 1981, he launched his composing and recording careers, always working in multiple genres and mediums, including stage and film direction. In 1984 he composed Quorum, the first piece of its kind for sequencer. Ulysses Dove choreographed Vespers to Quorum. Since 1987 it has been presented in repertory by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Filmed by David Hinton in 1995, Vespers was aired on PBS’ Great Performances Dance in America series and received two primetime Emmy Awards. Rouse constantly is expanding his vocabulary and his reach. His new work includes the recently commissioned string quartet, Sarah’s Kitchen, inspired by a photograph of Sarah Albritton of Ruston, Louisiana, taken by New York City photographer Susan San Giovanni. San Giovanni is one of several friends of Rouse who come to Ruston to round out his residency. At the John Jay for a brief run, the opera Dennis Cleveland is a bit of a mirage – miracle time where, according to one set of lyrics, “Everyone is involved. Everyone participates.” In truth, it’s a lot deeper; there’s plenty more to this iceberg. ———————————————————————— About the Author: Rita Kohn, playwright and journalist, is a regular contributor to the Newsletter. Her previous articles can be found in the Newsletter Archives. Resources: Dennis Cleveland – A Talk-Show Opera by Mikel Rouse is presented in New York City as part of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Great Performers / New Visions Series. Performances are at John Jay College Theater, 899 Tenth Avenue (Amsterdam Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets), Wednesday through Saturday, 1-4 May at 8:00 pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees, 4 and 5 May at 3:00 pm. Tickets are available at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office at 65th and Broadway, through CenterCharge at 212 / 721 6500, or by visiting Lincoln Center’s website at www.lincolncenter.org, now with instant ticketing. Important phone numbers: Programs and Services for People with Disabilities 212 / 875 5375; Great Performers Hotline 212 / 875 5937; Group Sales Office 212 / 875 5475. View a short video clip from the production in our Digital Library. See the composer’s website at www.mikelrouse.com The Krannert Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has a website at www.krannertcenter.org www.arts4all.com Arts4All, Ltd. is the Publisher of this Newsletter.
The New York Times
OPERA REVIEW | ‘THE MARY SHELLEY OPERA’ When Mary Met Percy (Then the Monster) By ANNE MIDGETTE
Today new operas tend to be essentially conservative. For every “Dennis Cleveland,” the innovative television talk show opera by Mikel Rouse, there are five “Great Gatsbys”: operas, that is, that follow the time-honored formula of constructing arias, ensembles and instrumental interludes around a conventional narrative and inflating the whole thing onto a suitably grand scale. Opera is an old-fashioned form, runs the conventional wisdom, and approaches to it remain, generally, old-fashioned.
The Village Voice
Week of May 15 – 21, 2002
Mikel Rouse’s Rhythmic Complexity Eludes Uptown Critics
For Your Ears Only by Kyle Gann
To take one of many examples from Mikel Rouse’s talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland: There is a passage in the final “Madison Square” scene in which Rouse, as Dennis, is rapping, “I’ve been waiting for this, a potential arcade,” and so on, and the chorus enters with a chorale heard earlier in the opera, in a different meter, key, and seemingly even tempo. The effect is much as though you’re sitting in the opera house listening to and watching “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walkure and quietly the “Magic Fire” music from a different part of the opera enters superimposed, so that you’re listening to both at the same time. Through the end of the scene, the music adds layers of already-heard material, until you’re listening to at least four at once.
The fact that, in Rouse’s work, you can hear those layered musical passages at the same time without their getting muddy is not because Rouse has secretly crafted them to work together harmonically, the way Mozart did his three dances in different meters at the climax of Don Giovanni’s Act I. Rouse’s feat is post-classical: Those overlapped passages work together because he has masterfully placed them in different auditory spaces in the recorded backgrounds (which is not the same thing as simply separating them spatially, but requires different treatments in reverb, phasing, and other techniques I hardly understand).
No more elegantly audible cognitive dissonance can be found in any score by Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter than this passage. I know the effect exists because as I write this, I am looking at it in the score and hearing it on the recording. For someone to convince me that that passage does not exist say, an uptown classical critic who didn’t hear it would entail overcoming patent epistemological obstacles.
And yet, it is not only because I am privileged to own the score that I’ve noticed that effect. Without particularly waiting for it, I heard that passage when I attended Dennis Cleveland at the John Jay Theater May 4, and I remember being awed by it the first time I ever heard the work in 1996. There are many such layerings throughout the opera, smooth and unobtrusive but available to anyone listening closely. In fact, Rouse’s feat in Dennis Cleveland and his subsequent theatrical works (the others available only on CD and DVD so far) is as though he took that superimposition of dances in Don Giovanni a passage often cited as a precursor to the rhythmic layerings of Carter and Stockhausen and expanded the effect as the basis for his entire work. Like the dances in Don Giovanni, and quite unlike the complexities of Carter and Stockhausen, the different layers in Dennis Cleveland retain their independent recognizability, making the effect truly mesmerizing and mystical, and not just an academic affectation.
It has been Rouse’s aim, as a member of the totalist generation, to preserve in his music the levels of complexity one finds in serialist music, BUT and I wish I could make this BUT five inches high on the page to simultaneously make the complexity audible and recognizable by relating it to clear tonalities and beats, AND at the same time to place the complexity in the background, so that it does not disturb the completely defensible pleasure of listeners who are more superficially enjoying the 4/4 beat and rhyming lyrics on the surface. The aim itself is elegantly complex, and requires masterful imagination. And this is precisely Mozart’s aim in Don Giovanni, to keep the musical surface serene and flowing, but outline the complexities of the stage action in a backgrounded tour de force that cognoscenti can’t help but notice.
One problem the totalists face is that some of their most elegant achievements, like Mozart’s “artless art,” can slip by unnoticed. So when Anthony Tommasini complained in his review in the Times (clinching his argument with an inaccurate quotation from the libretto) that “the layered elements are mostly drowned out by the blaring surface stuff,” it only proves that totalist rhythmic complexity is indeed calculated to not intrude on the listening habits of the unsophisticated. Much of the audience, laughing at the lines and clapping to the infectious songs, didn’t seem aware of the complexity, and certainly wasn’t disturbed by it. I and others I spoke with were dazzled by the intricacy of the simultaneous different meters, similar in effect to (and originally patterned after) African drumming. As for cognoscenti who might be expected to hear the subtleties and couldn’t well, many of New York’s fine music schools offer remedial ear training.
The Operas of Mikel Rouse:
Dennis Cleveland Downtown Opera Comes Uptown
By Robert Wilder Blue. Opera Web. 2002
Mikel Rouse has been on a mission the past decade: his quest has been to combine music and visual arts in a manner that carries forward the tradition of opera and places it in the current time zone. His musical influences encompass the various popular music genres of the past forty-some years, jazz, world music and, finally, classical. One might be tempted to label him self-taught – in the sense that no institution really teaches how to do what he does. He has combined his small-town Missouri background with a more-or-less formal college education, added twenty-odd years’ of experiences, diversions and stimuli that come with living in New York City, put it all through the creative mechanism that is his mind and come up with operas for and about today.
Mr. Rouse’s second opera, Dennis Cleveland, premiered in 1996 at Lincoln Center and has been presented at the Eclectic Orange Festival (Orange Country, California) and the Perth International Arts Festival (Perth, Australia). It returns to Lincoln Center May 1-5, 2002. USOPERAWEB talked to Mikel about this operas and his beginnings, which might not have indicated that he would eventually end up at Lincoln Center. “I was born in St. Louis in 1957 and grew up Poplar Bluff, a small town in the boot heel of Missouri, so it was considered a southern town while the rest of Missouri is sort of considered the Midwest. [In fact, he says ‘Missourah.’] There wasn’t much in the way of the arts – it was a small rural community. If you saw any visual art it was in Time magazine or something like that. I had an uncle who ran a music store and played in a jazz band and my mother had visual art and music training in college but she didn’t pursue either. Radio was probably my biggest influence. The local stations were mostly country-western and some pop, but when they shut down at about 10:00 at night you’d get this mysterious wave coming from outer space which was WLS-Chicago and you could hear all the great Motown stuff and the most current popular music. I had access to jazz through records, but there was very little else until I went to college. “I played piano from a very young age. They tried to give me lessons but I didn’t like the teacher and I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons on Saturday mornings. She was always upset because I wouldn’t rehearse. She would lie on the couch eating bon-bons and say, ‘well, if you’re not going to do this at home, you’ll have to do it here.’ So it was kind of a drag.
Finally after six months or so, my parents realized there was no future in it and they let me stop. And then I started playing piano by ear five hours a day. I was writing stuff from the beginning using these little hieroglyphic figures. When I was in high school, the band teacher saw that the kids weren’t really learning much about music – in band you just learned to play your instrument (barely) and march. So he started a theory course and I learned to read and write music there. It was because I had taken those courses that I was able to pass the test to get into the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music. Dennis Cleveland “I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but that doesn’t mean I knew it was going to be professional and it certainly didn’t mean I expected to get out of that small town. But by the time I enrolled in college I had a game plan. I didn’t know exactly how it would happen but I knew I was going to combine music composition with visual techniques and I knew I wanted to get a background in both these things. The Kansas City Art Institute and the Conservatory of Music were across the street from each other and they had a program that allowed me to take a double major.
So I studied theory and composition at the Conservatory and filmmaking and painting at the Art Institute. My first year was really this embarrassing crash course. At the Conservatory there were people who had strong backgrounds in music and had played in orchestras all their lives, and at the Art Institute there were students from all over the world who had grown up with art. I was lacking in any kind of cultural or historical perspective. I spent the first year in the library reading books on aesthetics and history and just catching up. “The Art Institute and the Conservatory were so different each other. The Art Institute didn’t allow you to concentrate on anything specifically your first year; you had to go through every department to learn about all the different visual arts. You might come in as a painter but then discover photography and realize that was where your visual sense was. That was great, except that it was possible to go there for four years and not learn a single thing, although they really emphasized people thinking for themselves and the creative approach. The Conservatory was a performance-oriented school, so the composition department was not their strongest suit. You had to do these silly assignments in composition class to write sonatas and so forth, but there was no emphasis on creativity. (Remember, this was happening in Kansas City, Missouri which is one of the great jazz capitals in the world.)
But the theory department was incredible and that’s probably where I learned the most, and the structure and discipline I learned at the Conservatory served me well in later years. I feel lucky to have gone both places and been able to combine both approaches. If I had gone to only one, I would have had a very flawed education.” Mr. Rouse moved to New York in 1979 and dove into the downtown scene. He studied various World Musics as well as the Schillinger Method of Composition. We asked him to explain the method to us. “It was a system created by Joseph Schillinger who was head of the mathematics, visual arts and music departments at the New School for Social Research in New York – he was the only person ever to hold all three positions. Schillinger’s method of composition is based on mathematics. He came up with a theory of permutation built on a set of principles from his Encyclopaedia of Rhythms. He postulated that he could show through mathematical permutation every rhythm that had happened on the planet in the past and present or would happen in the future.
It was very interesting because I had studied only the western European tradition, the Hindemith method, which deals almost solely with the evolving complexity of harmony through the history of western music and hardly at all with rhythm. With Schillinger, I began to realize that this was not how the rest of the world thought. I was coming out of a jazz and rock-and-roll background and world music was starting to creep into the U.S. about this time. All of a sudden here comes this guy with a 96-page book based just on rhythm and I found that very exciting and, more to the point, I found it was how I thought about rhythm. “His system becomes relevant to all music – western European classical music, African music, Indian music, microtonal music – because it’s basically a series of measurements. He doesn’t take anything away from any tradition; it’s a way of pointing out the commonality between all the different kinds of music. Rhythm was a very big part of what the American style of composition was about – going back to experimental composers like Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Gershwin studied by correspondence with Schillinger. But, his method was almost completely panned in its day because so many Tin Pan Alley composers seized upon it.
They had deadlines and had to write very quickly so they couldn’t sit around in an Ivory Tower and wait for inspiration. Through Schillinger’s permutation and theme and development techniques you could write things very quickly and efficiently when you needed to develop large amounts of music based on only one or too good ideas you had that day.” The Modern Operas “In 1987 I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I wasn’t interested in doing it as a story so much as I was interested in Capote’s craft. In his preface to Music for Chameleons Capote explained how he was trying to create a new art form, which was the nonfiction novel. He tried to figure out how a writer skilled in any number of separate crafts – short stories, novels, reportage – could combine all of them to realize his full potential. I found that to be incredibly exciting because I was having the same dilemma. I had been touring with my chamber ensemble, Broken Consort, and we had a pretty good career going. But I was never completely happy and convinced that we were achieving what I wanted to with the music. In addition to that, I wasn’t really exploring my potential to merge musical and visual structures to form one synthesized whole. Many people say the goal of opera is to achieve that, but more times than not, especially in the grant-driven world, you put together a composer, a librettist, a director and a scenic designer and sometimes it works but more often it doesn’t. For me it feels like there’s no marriage there.
“The other thing was that at about age 32 I was feeling something was missing in the work I had done and I came to realize that I wasn’t coming to terms with my own history, meaning my own limitations in terms of what I had been exposed to as a child. A lot of artists spend a great deal of time denying their pasts, wishing they had been brought up in Europe or that they had studied with this composer or that teacher. We all lament what could have been, but the fact is we’re all saddled with what and who we are. So I had to embrace my history and say, ‘these are my tools and they are what I have to work with.’ I was very proud that I was developing my own contrapuntal style working with the rhythm systems and a new sense of harmony through the rotation and convergence of metric structures, but it still wasn’t acknowledging the fact that I had grown up listening to all sorts of vernacular music; it was never synthesized in such a way that reflected an honest assessment of who I was. So, you really start to see the acknowledgement of that in the work that has happened since: Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland and The End of Cinematics. This is the work that really defines where I have been over the past ten or twelve years and the work I find more relevant to the world I live in. “With Failing Kansas I had to decide how I was going to write music that would convey Capote’s ideas in In Cold Blood in a nonnarrative way that was going to be believable. I didn’t want to have singers traipsing through the fields of Kansas singing, ‘Oh, we’re off to kill the Clutters,’ you know. And that is what led to the counterpoetry – strict metric counterpoint of multiple voices speaking – which I think puts you inside the characters’ heads.
That was a real breakthrough for me – to use my love of music and knowledge of structure to create something that didn’t fall into any kind of traditional approach. It was a different kind of soundscape.” The Talk Show Opera Dennis Cleveland “Dennis Cleveland was inspired by a book called Voltaire’s Bastards written by a Canadian author named John Ralston Saul. In general, the book is about Western culture’s reliance on reason over other more humanistic ways of looking at things and how that’s gotten us into a lot of trouble. He explores the nature and ritual of television and says that if you’re looking for content on television you’re missing the point, which is to fulfill the need for that ritual and repetition – the kind of repetition we find in the Catholic mass or a Chinese religious ceremony. People create rituals to give them a sense of grounding; from the first cup of coffee in the morning through the entire day we create these events we can look forward to and rely on. Television fulfills that need for many people. They may complain about it and say there is nothing on worth watching but they are basically looking for the same show to be there at the same time and in some weird way that provides consistency in their lives. I took that idea to heart and applied it to talk shows. It’s so easy to say that the people who watch them are stupid and the people on them are stupid. But I thought it was much more interesting to ask the question, ‘why are they there?’ That allowed me to make an intrinsic connection between a nonnarrative form and repetition in the music and to incorporate the visual elements into the structure of the music. My theory is that even if people don’t read or understand music they will perceive in a subliminal way that these things are happening in concert. “At the start people thought, ‘okay, a talk show opera,’ and kind of rolled their eyes thinking it was going to be kitsch or parody. But, when we did it in New York in 1996, the straight classical guys who wouldn’t even review a downtown concert came along with the new music people and the pop music people and they all flipped because they realized it had all the stuff they expected to see in opera, but it wasn’t square. The overblown tragedy and the different character manipulation of traditional opera all exists in Dennis Cleveland, but it is current, it is what is happening in the society we live in.” Uptown/Downtown “I knew when I came to New York that I fit more into the downtown scene. The uptown/downtown thing exists because uptown you have these institutions that have subscriptions holders and to keep them feeling better about themselves they keep programming the traditional classical repertory. But, the western European classical music tradition makes up a pretty small piece of the artistic pie. Opera is a very limited tradition and the presentation of traditional opera simply isn’t believable any more. The only real answer is for new artists to bring in new work that appeals to different audiences. For the most part you see much more openness to new ideas in dance, film, video, painting – quite frankly in all the other art forms – and certainly in pop music. “My work is coming from a different tradition – from John Cage and Merce Cunningham through Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. A lot of people probably think my work is like performance art, which I disdain. I have been very lucky with my pieces, but to be honest they could be much more successful if I didn’t call them operas. Opera is a four-letter word. It’s the hardest thing for presenters to sell. I make a comparison to children and vegetables. They just know they hate them without even tasting them. People know they hate opera even though they’ve never gone to one. So why would I put myself in the position of making it ten times harder to sell the show? The answer is that if you think of opera in its truest sense in terms of scale and the goal to merge all the arts together, my pieces are operas. I am not just playing around with the word – it’s what comes closest to describing what these pieces are. “I don’t think we really look to opera any more for realistic dramas. We have movies and television for that. This is one of the reasons Dennis Cleveland has attracted so much attention. It is something that makes the theater stay relevant and if we don’t start presenting things like this then the theaters will become museums where you only go to see history. There are a lot of different options now, particularly because of computer and DVD technology and television. So large institutions have to look to new ways to do things. I don’t think the way to do it is to dumb down the pieces. The history of music is wonderful and needs to be kept alive but the answer isn’t to try to find new and trashier and cleverer ways to present Rigoletto. It’s more interesting to keep presenting those pieces in a natural way and at the same time to support new work and new visions.” More on Mikel Rouse http://www.mikelrouse.com