“Miranda”, Kamala Sankaram’s steampunk murder-mystery chamber opera at HERE

First, before we go any further, let’s review the basics of Kamala Sankaram’s Miranda: it is a “steampunk murder-mystery chamber opera”, depicting the trial of three suspects accused of murdering young Miranda Wright. This trial is being broadcast on a reality TV show in an alternate history (the precise year of which is kept purposefully vague), and features a small chamber ensemble whose musicians also serve as the cast (often singing and playing simultaneously). The audience participates as the jury, admitting or denying evidence (in the form of short flashback scenes) and ultimately deciding who is guilty, all done through the highly democratic process of yelling one’s choice loudly at the bailiff (who’s serves in sort of an MC/comic relief capacity, explaining the rules at the beginning and constantly breaking the fourth wall). Sankaram composed the score and co-wrote the libretto (with Rob Reese, who also directs), and the music itself blends elements of Baroque opera, modernist art song, Hindustani classical music, tango, pop, and hip-hop (the latter carried by a bump-grinding baritone sax and an auto-tuned robot judge). Oh, and the whole show opens with a series of commercials set in this other world, such as a Calvin Klein-style attractive-people-running-around-a-fancy-house ads preaching the weight-loss benefits of “Consumption”, complete with flirtatious coughing into bloody rags. Got all that? Good.

Kamala Sankaram, Pat Muchmore – Photograph by Ben Arons

I approached the show, held at the wonderfully intimate and acoustically pristine HERE (formerly HERE Arts Center), with both trepidation and cautious optimism. Miranda addresses some musical questions that fascinate me: how might a composer work with folk elements without sacrificing their individual voice? How can one incorporate audience interactivity into a musical performance without ceding too much control? How can one find new ways of combining music, aesthetic, and narrative in the 21st century? Also, I was intrigued by the logistical issues: how would the musicians handle acting and singing? What sacrifices would have to be made to make that work? But, one overarching question caused me concern: could so many elements, musical and aesthetic, be combined in a 60-minute, one-act performance without being…well, gimmicky? Rabid eclecticism is an exciting, but dangerous, approach. On one hand, it is arguably the surest way to generate something that is, musically and aesthetically, both accessible and truly new, truly unlike music that’s come before. But a lesser composer can easily lose their voice in the din of an ill-fitting genre blend, the mix becoming a yawning void of clichés, clunky approximations, and misguided ambition. Sankaram not only escapes this void, she straps on a pair of steam-powered rollerblades and skates wild circles around it.

Drew Fleming, Pat Muchmore, Rima Fand, Kamala Sankaram (center), Jerry Miller – Photograph by Ben Arons

Miranda is presented in a small space whose decor makes one think of a neo-Victorian pirate ship. The actors take advantage of the entire room, but a circular platform in the center hosts most of the dramatic action. The two winds (Ed Rosenberg and Jeff Hudgins) are tucked away at stage left behind this platform, and are given only small dramatic roles. To stage right sit the three musicians who play Miranda’s possible murderers: guitarist Drew Fleming as Cor Prater, Miranda’s working-class fiance; cellist Pat Muchmore as Izzy Wright, Miranda’s wealthy and secretive father, and violinist Rima Fand as Miranda’s demanding and status-obsessed mother. The show alternates between re-enactments of moments from Miranda’s life, featuring Sankaram solo or in duet, and ensemble pieces built around the thumping groove of the reality show’s theme. It’s here the robot judge (the Differential Autonomous Verification Engine, or D.A.V.E.) makes his calls, the suspects bicker amongst each other, and the bailiff asks the audience to weigh in on the proceedings. The audience on the night I attended seemed to be broadly mixed, in terms of age and disposition, a roughly even split between students, opera buffs and regulars of HERE’s experimental theater productions. I couldn’t help but smile as I noticed the entire row in front of me was occupied by a group in full-on steampunk regalia, complete with top hats, ornate goggles, and what appeared to be complex homemade pocket watches.

Kamala Sankaram, Ed Rosenberg – Photograph by Ben Arons

Sankaram deftly handles the blending of disparate musical elements within the show. Each of the three suspects has a genre associated with them: Cor’s songs are somber pop flavored with tango, Izzy’s scenes take the form of Baroque opera, and Anjana’s intense exchanges with Miranda have a heavily Hindustani character. In a stroke of brilliance, Sankaram incorporates the Hindustani solfege (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, or sargam) into the libretto, mingling the syllables with English words or simply using them interchangeably (such as repeating ma and pa while pleading with her parents). Sankaram speaks all of her musical dialects with authenticity, as both a performer and a composer. Singing, she is equally at home with Baroque vocal trills and soulful pentatonic wails, while as a writer she makes her tango properly lusty in its muscularity and her hip-hop appropriately hot in its beats. The only real (minor) criticism I have is that the disparity of quality between Sankaram’s voice and those of Fleming and Muchmore was wide and somewhat distracting. They are by no means poor singers, and their ability to play, sing and act simultaneously is remarkable, but Sankaram often overpowers them in duet, even when clearly trying to hold back. It is notable that Fand not only has no such trouble, but doubles almost every single note she sings on her violin, while also playing the most dramatically complex of the supporting characters.

Drew Fleming, Pat Muchmore, Rima Fand, Jerry Miller – Photograph by Ben Arons

I assume that I cannot say I’ve seen the entirety of Miranda. I have only seen it once, and the way it’s structured around the audience’s input implies to me that the show contains several permutations. There must be at least three endings, depending on who is convicted, and I am sure that the final judgment changes nightly depending on both the crowd and the performers. As I called out my choice at the end, I was not entirely sure…was there something I missed? Was there a line of text or a stray splatter of cello notes that I misinterpreted? Might a moment’s distraction on my part result in a faulty sentence, sending an innocent soul to their doom? The audience seemed divided; I heard all three names called, but my choice seemed the most popular. As the bailiff beat the accused behind a wall, the remainder of the ensemble (now with Sankaram on accordion as well) issued the same atonal clouds we heard during Miranda’s death scene…perhaps implying a similar, unjust fate? That, right there, is the exact effect an artist hopes for when incorporating audience participation: the listener is now part of the narrative, not merely a witness to it. For just a moment, these characters became as real to me as they would have been if I myself was a character created by the composer, reacting in the story. Of course, in that moment, I was being created by the composer, as I was engaging with the narrative as a written character would…in leaving open even a small space for the audience to fill, Sankaram deftly engages our emotions in a way that wouldn’t be possible without participation. Sankaram asks us to be her characters for an evening, and in exchange, we may be part of her story. And what a story it is.

Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.