Dennis Cleveland

Conceived, written and directed by Mikel Rouse

“DENNIS CLEVELAND is the most exciting and innovative new opera since Einstein on the Beach.”
-KYLE GANN, The Village Voice

“…the idea is an inspired one and Rouse has fashioned a stunning 90 minute musical drama out of it.”
-PETER G. DAVIS, New York Magazine

“I know of nothing that has this combination: the compositional intelligence of the best of New York’s downtown avant-garde, the musical means of a rock band and the ability to transform the sleaziest side of popular culture into near-Wagnerian exaltation.”
-MARK SWED, The Los Angeles Times

“Rouse’s music is gripping and hypnotic, alternating singing with sing-songy recitation and blending rock, classical and African elements.”
-BRUCE CULP, Toronto Globe and Mail

“Of all new music composers, only Rouse is at home enough in the world of mass media to have had the chutzpah to engineer the first operatic talk show, with singers in the audience, choreographed cameramen, and an audience watching itself on video.”
-Time Out Magazine

Dennis Cleveland is a multimedia opera that is set entirely on a television talk show in the late 20th century. It is the second opera in a Trilogy that consists of Failing Kansas, an opera based on the 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’ and The End Of Cinematics an opera that explores the nature of corporate entertainment.

The host, Dennis Cleveland, is the catalyst and provacatour 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 that appear on stage) are linked together by the talk show host. As befits the current obsession with confessional talk shows, the content of the story evolves through the constant interaction of Dennis Cleveland and his guests. Though the guests appear to be telling their own stories, stories of lost love, obsession, crimes and regrets, what soon becomes clear is that they are telling the story of Dennis Cleveland as well.

Dennis Cleveland uses the live tape talk show format as its model while subverting the structure of this format through a series of cleverly disguised motifs. Like the various talk shows that abound worldwide, the audience and the stage become one under constant unrelenting television studio lighting. Live video of audience reactions and the inclusion of actors in theaudience as well as trained singers and soloists complete a staging that offers a new way of looking at opera.

Ultimately, the narrative is derived from the libretto, which follows Dennis Cleveland through a myriad of encounters chronicling the promise of salvation through popular culture. There is an Elmer Gantry like quality to the host and his reality, particularly the late 20th century phenomenon of television ritual as a replacement of ceremony previously associated with religion. Thus, the ritual is enforced in real time as the opera progresses and it soon becomes apparent that the audience exists in Dennis Cleveland’s future: that of the ultimate voyeur, the T.V. talk show host.

-1996 Mikel Rouse

Plot Description

The Dennis Cleveland Show (as theater experience) opens as the audience is led to its seat by ushers, similar to that of a normal talk show. The set is dressed with logos and video monitors and both stage and audience are lit under extreme television studio lighting. Much of the show will be experienced by not only watching the stage and audience, but by viewing the video screens and monitors as the”show” is being taped.

Scene 1: Dennis appears without suit coat to informally address the audience as to the nature and topic of todays show (Memory Day). After some general patter, he turns the audience over to audience prompter Christine who preps the audience on how to react to the prompter as well as how to respond to the cue card people.

Scene 2: The Prelude. The talk show theme music starts and Dennis Cleveland appears from behind the audience to deliver The Prelude. While Dennis is clearly addressing the audience, he does so by talking to one of three video cameras that project his image to the various monitors and screens in the studio. The dialogue of the prelude consists of fragments of pop cultural jargon and are frequently punctuated by a harmonica wielding Japanese tourist who is an audience member of the show. The scene ends with a brief description of life as movie by the host and concludes with the mandate: We Deliver!

Scene 3: The host goes through the audience with the question “Why are you here today?” Various guests quote lyrics from their favorite songs and some talk about the collective memory of television. (Throughout the scene, as with all audience scenes, a wordless aria is sung by a kind of ghostly commentator who appears in white, elevated above the guests stage right). This segues into todays show topic, “Memory Day”.

Scene 4. Life In These United States. Dennis greets todays guests as they walk on to the stage. There are four couples: Eric and Napua, David and Kate, Levinsky and Heather, Mark and Andrea. After the introductions, the host begin to chant a guests’ name and prerecorded samples from current talk shows are combined in rapid succession with the real singers on stage. Over and over, we hear such phrases as “If you don’t love me the way I am then you can go” or “My way or the highway”. The scene builds to a climax as Dennis confronts David about the positive changes Kate has made in her life: Dennis: “Look at her now”; David: “I know but she’s changed on me”.

Scene 5: Dennis returns to the audience to hear collective memories from three audience members. It is in this scene that we first start to realize that the various audience members are really telling the individual story of Dennis Cleveland himself. The stories range from tales of life with father to tales of a traveling carnival. Throughout the scene, guests and various audience members punctuate the stories with cat calls and opinions.

Scene 6: Soul Train. The audience and stage lights dim. The scene begins with the eight guests rising from their chairs and singing a choral fugue. After the first fugue, the guests (led by Dennis) return to their seats and Dennis, for the first time, addresses the audience from the stage. He tells the story of what got him here and how he came to be. The story is concerned with the power of suggestion and mass hypnosis and its effect on a culture. After the story, he returns to the audience to hear yet another elliptical confession from an audience member. Dennis then retells his story, but with a different harmonic emphasis which in turn changes the meaning of the story from one of despair to one of hope. The scene ends with full chorus and audience members in a quasi religious “tent meeting” atmosphere.

Scene 7: The lights come back up as Dennis heads back into the audience. He hears another story from an audience member who thanks celebrities for her sense of belonging in society. This segues into scene 8.

Scene 8: Beautiful Murders. The entire ensemble (guests and audience) combine in a rousing homage and critique of celebrity culture. A duet is sung by Levinsky and Kate (separating from their respective partners) and punctuated by Dennis’ constant prodding. The upbeat mood is suddenly interrupted by scene 9.

Scene 9: Apparent Money. The lights dim to a kind of religious ceremonial lighting. The guests seem both dazed and entranced as they start to chant. It starts to turn into a religious ceremony for money. As the guest continue to chant, Dennis roams the audience, seeking out believers from non-believers and coaching them in the rhythm (and meaning) of the money chant. The scene includes more lost memories of Dennis including his confession of being loveless (L-O-V-E-L-E-S…and leave off the last ‘s’ for savings…). Napua rises to tell her own story of being witness to decay and expresses the insight that this won’t be happening to her. She concludes that her answer, indeed the only answer, is money.

Scene 10: Why Are You Here Today (She Feels Like). The lights rise again and break the spell that Dennis has created. The harmonica wails and introduces scene 10. Dennis addresses three of the four couples on stage. He implores the men to try and see the pain of their mates but the men are dismissive. In an unexpected turn of events, the women rebel and seem to have discovered an inner meaning: “He’s outta there. I want him gone. He’s out there.” Dennis seems bewildered and wonders to himself if any decisions are ever permanent.

Scene 11: Dennis returns to the audience in hopes of clarity. The last scene has empowered an audience member to “Leave her boyfriend, quit her job and get more work done on her face”. Together, they ponder the conformity that passes for individualism but settle on the idea of unconditional “belief” which is confirmed by other audience members.

Scene 12: Altered Bodies. Dennis and guests respond to the previous scene with an explosion of faith in the form of changing ones image. A virtual celebration is experience by all as the pleasures and pains of piercing and plastic surgery are held up as possible answers to the question of faith.

Scene 13: Dennis returns to the audience to try and wrap up what has been a disconcerting show for him. After hearing a particularly moving story from an audience member, Dennis again addresses the camera. He ponders his life and it becomes clear he is reflecting the lives of his audience, just as their stories were a reflection of him. The scene ends with an exhausted Dennis being consoled by the harmonica playing audience member.

Scene 14: Madison Square. The finale of the piece begins with Dennis again questioning his own (television and current cultural trends) existence. The guests begin another extended choral fugue and plead for an environment that is “safer”. Various audience members continue to want to tell their stories, but Dennis is somehow disengaged. He then encourages Andrea, who has decided to leave Mark, to rise and tell her story. Dennis realizes a perfect television moment: one of deep concern (and ratings) and possible remembers that his reality, shallow though it may be, is real enough for most people. The scene ends in a harrowing finale as guests, audience members, and Cleveland himself become swept up in a chilling anthem hailing the promise of salvation through popular culture.

Postlude: A now hapless Dennis, who has been conducting the guests, turns to face his audience. He looks out to them for some sign and is rebuked by a lone audience member. Lights Out.

The End.

Dennis Cleveland photos by Steve Singer
Music and Libretto 1996 Mikel Rouse
Published by Club Soda Music (ASCAP)
DENNIS CLEVELAND was premiered at The Kitchen in New York City October 29-November 2, 1996.

Dennis Cleveland is respectfully dedicated to Robert Ashley who has often noted that the future of American Opera is television.
In Memory of Ulysses Dove.