Failing Kansas

Conceived, written and directed by Mikel Rouse

“Failing Kansas is the best major work I’ve seen by someone of the new generation.”

“Erase your images of opera. This is a multimedia experience that shatters boundaries of conventional thinking. The piece is riveting. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore”.

“Rouse’s narrative transforms into an amazing, hypnotizing instrument of rhythm.”

1 Prelude
2 The Last To See Them Alive
3 Like My Dream
4 Persons Unknown
5 A Brief History Of My Boys Life
6 Answer
7 The Private Diary Of Perry Edward Smith
8 The Corner
9 In Cold Blood

FAILING KANSAS is approximately eighty minutes in length and is performed without intermission.

The opera Failing Kansas is the first full length work to explore the technique of vocal writing that I call Counterpoetry. Put simply, Counterpoetry is the use of multiple unpitched voices in strict metric counterpoint. Failing Kansas is 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.

My goal in writing the opera was twofold: to explore this new vocal writing technique (a parallel may be drawn with Capote’s desire to initiate a new art form: the non-fiction novel), and to capture the intention of this story without resorting to a re-telling of the tale (there has already been the novel In Cold Blood and Richard Brooks’ faithful rendition of the book to film). Because of these previous works, I was able to move beyond a narrative approach and toward the effect of pure sound; the sound of many conflicting voices assembling the story.

The libretto is composed of actual transcripts and testimony from the event as well as fragments of verse by Robert W. Service and Thomas Gray and songs by Perry Smith, who along with Dick Hickock was responsible for the murders. In addition, research on pentecostal hymns heard during this period (most notably those of the composer C. Austin Miles) are rearranged into the prism of competing spoken texts. The themes of religion, social justice, and the mystery of what we call fate all combine in this work, resting uneasily with the hope of redemption.

The opera consists of a prelude, four scenes connected by three interludes or “traveling sections”, and a postlude in the form of a closing song. The four scenes are The Last To See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner . These scenes develop complex vocal relationships and share thematic material while adding new voices as the opera progresses.

The interludes are Like My Dream, A Brief History Of My Boys Life, and The Private Diary Of Perry Edward Smith The interludes serve two main functions: 1) to introduce a wider variety of spoken vocal techniques and 2) to provide a respite from the dense vocal counterpoint of the four main scenes.

There are two sets of musical themes throughout the piece and these separate themes are divided between the four scenes and the interludes. The first set of themes are presented in The Last To See Them Alive. They are as follows:

A1) An arrpegio figure in 4/4 in the key of e which resolves to CMAJ7. Superimposed over this figure is a resetting of the pentecostal hymn In The Garden which retains the originals half-time meter but abandons the melodic and harmonic information. This theme is stated at both the beginning and the end of the first scene, foreshadowing its importance as the closing theme of the opera at which time it is joined by a chorus of spoken voices which gradually enter a line at a time, gathering together the ninth stanza of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

A2) A metric figure of 3+3+1+3 with a chord progression of A-f#-c#-D + A-c#-D-E is combined with a spoken figure in 4/4 of a ballad by Perry Smith. This theme is restated in Answer over a comprehensive listing of highways and hotels, motels, rivers, towns, and cities.

A3) A simple melodic figure in the key of F with alternating accents of 3 and 2. This theme falls in the middle of an arc (A+B+C+D+C+B+A+D) in The Last To See Them Alive as well as serving as the closing. It reappears in Persons Unknown in extreme augmentation, alternating keys in an arc of A-G-F-G-A.

The second set of themes are found in the interludes and consist of various permutations of the following figures:

B1) A syncopated motif of 3+4+4+4+4 which expands or contracts depending on the instrumentation: harmonica/strings (expand), guitar/keyboard (contract).

B2) A small melodic motif with an implied tonal center of e. The cyclical nature of this melody compliments the texture of the multiple voices. The repeating fragment is reharmonized to C at the end of The Private Diary Of Perry Edward Smith.

The Prelude combines both sets of themes. Harmonicas double strings in long tones of 3(6) against 2(4) permutating the second set of themes. A solo harmonica then states the first set of themes over this constant shifting of sound.

The opera is “topped off” by the closing song In Cold Blood . The import of the opera is perhaps suggested in the line “Asleep among the Son of God’s disease” where “Asleep among” (plural) suggests a gathering together,while “the Son of God’s disease” (singular)
implies a sacred contradiction. In this contrary grammatical message lies the meaning of this opera.

Copyright © 1995 Mikel Rouse
Photos by Roger Woolman. Courtesy of Temple Bar Properties