Jonathan Berger’s Visitations Paints Operatic Portraits of Hallucination

This is the first post of Technology Editor Dana Wen’s two-part coverage of the seventh annual Music & Brain Symposium, held at Stanford University on April 12 – 13, 2013.

stanford_liveOnstage, a disheveled figure slouches on a wooden box, dressed in the garb of a hospital patient. This is Leon, a tormented man who suffers from frequent auditory hallucinations, symptoms of his debilitating schizophrenia. While Leon slumps on his box, twitching and staring off into space, kettledrums begin to rumble, joined by the crash of cymbals. Caught up in the furor of hallucinatory sound, Leon begins to beat out rhythms of his own, using his own body and the box under him as instruments. This was the scene on April 12, 2013, at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, where composer Jonathan Berger‘s Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter received its world premiere.  The production brought together an all-star cast, including New York Polyphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Director Rinde Eckert and conductor Christopher Roundtree provided artistic leadership.

Jonathan Berger's Theotokia (photo credit: Stanford Live)

Jonathan Berger’s Theotokia (photo credit: Stanford Live)

Leon is the protagonist of Theotokia, which along with its companion opera The War Reporter,  explores the experiences of those who hear “inner voices.” The product of a collaboration between Berger, a composer and researcher at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, and librettist Dan O’Brien, the two operas form the production Visitations. The fictional Theotokia focuses on religious hallucinatory experiences born from schizophrenia, while The War Reporter follows the true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Watson, who was haunted by auditory hallucinations after a stint in war-torn Somalia.

Opened to the public in January 2013, the gorgeous newBing auditorium offered an ideal stage for Visitations. The space boasts soaring ceilings and an intimate sound, engineered by a team whose accomplishments include Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall. The “vineyard” style floor plan seats audience members in petal-shaped sections that surround the performers. For Visitations, the semi-circular stage was filled with props. Strewn around a long table, crumpled paper, chairs, and wooden crates littered the ground. On one side sat the nine-member chamber orchestra, comprised of strings, woodwinds, piano, and percussion. An enormous white sheet hung above one section of seats, spilling onto the chairs below and creating a screen for photo and video projections.

Berger’s haunting scores combine acoustic elements with pre-recorded audio. A heavily-processed recording of a finger cymbal is used in Theotokia, while The War Reporter relies on the identifiable sounds of a camera shutter and a helicopter. The noises reach the audience through an ambisonic network of speakers placed around the auditorium, immersing the audience in the sounds of auditory hallucination. Using data obtained from psychiatric studies, Berger mapped speakers in different parts of the room to regions of the brain. During hallucination scenes in the operas, the audio travels through the auditorium in the same manner that “inner voices” activate the brain.

Visitations begins with Theotokia, a journey through the blurring realities of a man with schizophrenia. Ensconced in his room at a mental institution, Leon experiences recurring hallucinations which lead him to believe that he is in communion with the mother of God. Two hallucinatory figures torment Leon: A Shaker leader named Mother Anne and an animalistic Yeti Mother. Complications occur when Leon’s real mother appears and it becomes clear that Leon has lost the ability to distinguish between reality and hallucination.

Theotokia wavers between stillness and violence, echoing the nature of Leon’s hallucinations. Solemn chimes and chant-like vocals evoke Mother Anne’s piety, while drums and harsh strings dominate scenes involving the fearsome Yeti Mother. Berger’s score treats his network of speakers as an instrument, folding the ambisonic sound field into the timbral spectrum of the orchestra. Occasionally, live instrumental sound nearly obscured the pre-recorded audio, making it difficult to hear the detailed sonic mappings as they traversed the network of speakers.

Aided by clever costume changes performed onstage, soprano Heather Buck moved seamlessly between the roles of Mother Anne, the Yeti Mother, and Leon’s real mother. In a poignant moment, Leon’s mother mourns her son’s battle with schizophrenia. Framed by a melancholic flute melody, Buck’s voice took on a pleading tone tinged with grief and despair.

In a role that required extensive acting, countertenor Geoffrey Williams delivered a powerful performance as Leon, capturing the blank gaze and erratic movements of a man struggling with severe mental illness. Silenced by the hallucinatory figures that visit him, Leon remains voiceless for much of the opera, only finding lucidity in the work’s final moments. Here Williams’ pure countertenor hovered over the orchestra, expressing confusion, frustration, and a glimmer of hope.

With The War Reporter, Berger explores the territory of biographical narrative. Comprised of six vignettes set in locations around the world, the opera portrays photojournalist Paul Watons’s struggles to come to terms with the hallucinatory voices of war. The action begins in Mogadishu, where Paul finds a mob dragging the body of Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland through the streets. Right before snapping a photograph, Paul hears Cleveland’s voice saying, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The ghostly voice continues to torment Paul as he continues his career.

Berger’s score complements the drama onstage, punctuating key moments with evocative sound bytes. Fizzy bubbles of flute and percussion characterize a champagne reception, while crashing chords on the piano represent the gunshots of war. Equally effective, Berger’s recorded sounds stand distinctly apart from the chamber orchestra. The unsettling noises rained down from the network of speakers overhead, showering the audience with deep booms and high-pitched clicking. Meanwhile, Watson’s photographs flashed on the screen, stark scenes of war that provided a powerful visual accompaniment.

Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert brought nuance to the complex character of Paul. Herbert shone during exchanges with other singers, particularly during Paul’s heart-wrenching phone conversation with Cleveland’s brother (sung marvelously by bass Craig Phillips). Their ears glued to telephone receivers, bereft of eye contact and physical interaction, the two gave a performance that crackled with tension.

Held in tandem with Stanford’s seventh annual Music & Brain Symposium, Visitations provided a fitting artistic kick-off to the conference. Founded by Berger, the event explores various musical topics from a neurological perspective. The 2013 symposium focused on auditory hallucinations, fitting hand-in-hand with the themes of Berger’s operas.

Dana Wen (I CARE IF YOU LISTEN’s Technology Editor) is a Seattle-based pianist and software engineer who writes about music, technology, and everything in between. Follow her on Twitter @wenguin.