Experiments in Opera’s Modularias Fuses Voice and Modular Synthesizer

On November 2nd and 3rd, Experiments in Opera‘s “Modularias” presented four new works for voice and modular synthesizer commissioned from Jason Cady, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Joan La Barbara, and Kamala Sankaram. Though the blackbox at The Flea Theater presented some acoustic issues, the evening’s works gave the audience a feast of topical food for thought, and a wide variety of new sounds and collaborative combinations not often seen on the opera circuit.

As the audience filed into the space, we were greeted with a stage filled with desks upon which stood modular synthesizers, gadgets with nests of colorful wires that stood out starkly against the black surfaces of the theater’s stage. Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Volver opened the program, and fuzzy recordings of testimony given by victims and a participant in the 1930s “repatriation” of Mexican-Americans to Mexico against their will made for somber listening. These voices were effectively harmonized by noises from both Roland Burks and the synthesizer. “Ka-chas,” “purrrs,” and howls by Burks were echoed by the synthesizer’s bell tones, metallic and crystalline. These three musical parts were weighted equally, all demanding immediate attention from the listener. While this made absorption of the musical material difficult at times as my attention fought to figure out who to focus on, the final voice crackling on the recording hit home to the psyche with a straight shot: the gravely voice of a by-then elderly John Anson Ford (one of the enforcers of the repatriation) saying “the audacity of government is amazing—I don’t think they’d get away with it today.”

Andrew Raffo Dewar and Roland Burks in Experiments in Opera's Modularias

Andrew Raffo Dewar and Roland Burks in Experiments in Opera’s Modularias–Photo by Reuben Radding

Jason Cady’s Candy Corn was the piece on the program that certainly served Experiments in Opera’s commitment to find “the silly in the serious” in honor of composer Matt Marks. Cady served up a wallop of Millennial Absurdism in this wonderful piece that had the audience in fits of laughter every minute or so. Throughout the opera, Cady was grooving at the synthesizer, treating it like a turn table while bopping his head and keeping an eye on his score. Alize Rozsnyai and Calder Craig—as his protagonists wading through memories of a recently deceased loved one—carried out an incredibly topical score/script and remained stone-faced as they talked (in perfect 4/4 time) about the value of having a church job, disliking Arizona, and the travesty of how there’s “no wifi at the beach.” Costume changes, circular narrative, and Rozsnyai’s deliciously diva performances matched with Craig’s soothing, calm baritone made this almost-too-relatable work radically enjoyable.

Kamala Sankaram in Experiments in Opera's Modularias

Kamala Sankaram in Experiments in Opera’s Modularias–Photo by Reuben Radding

The Wife has a twist ending I won’t spoil for you here, but I will say that composer Kamala Sankaram has proven in this work that accordions and synthesizers were made for each other. Sankaram herself played the part of the wife, her beautiful vermilion voice soliloquizing about the alternating hardships and joys of marriage. Her howls and sighings were convincing, and her questioning of “what is the measure of life, of love, how it begins, and how it ends?” prompted the audience to think about their own relationships, to think about the length of a lifetime. Being so close to Sankaram as she stood on the stage of such an intimate space gave me the feeling of being emotionally alongside her as she told her story, but powerful voices like hers feel caged in this space, and I had to cover my ears at times.

The final work on the program was the most successful in marrying the synthesizer and voice as multi-faced characters and weaving those qualities into the narrative component that opera gives us the canvas for. In Virginia and the Time Machine, Joan La Barbara uses the synthesizer as both backdrop and sets. As Virginia (performed with wonder and gravitas by Julia Meadows) wades through pre-World War II England, we hear the cacophonous thumping of hammers and construction in preparation for the anticipated onslaught of violence. When Virginia is transported back in time to her memories of an idyllic childhood in St. Ives on the Cornwall coast, the synthesizer gives us ocean waves as the cello gives us the sound of seagulls. La Barbara made a cameo as Virginia’s mother in the childhood daydream, her voice awash in a reverb suitable for sounds preserved in the substance of fleeting memory.

Miguel Frasconi, Julia Meadows and Brian Hayslett in Experiments in Opera's Modularias

Miguel Frasconi, Julia Meadows and Brian Hayslett in Experiments in Opera’s Modularias–Photo by Reuben Radding

Experiments in Operas’s “Modularias” gave us work that provoked thought, laughter, emotion. These experiments were fruitful and gave the ears so much to touch and eyes so much to look at as the synthesizer pulled our imaginations onto the stage alongside the vocalists and musicians. While I’d highly recommend a different space for further operatic explorations, “Modularias” gave me new perspectives on the synthesizer as a dramatic character, and a profound feeling of gratitude for the new stories that contemporary composers are deciding to tell about humanity’s history.