Anne LeBaron @ U of C

Anne LeBaron presented this past Friday to a (rather poorly -- yikes!) attended colloquium in Fulton Hall. The subject: her opera, Sucktion. LeBaron's work sounds immediately fascinating. Here's a random selection from her very impressive CV: she won a Guggenheim, studied with Ligeti (not in that order), has written a "dance opera" called Pope Joan, and Wet, another opera about the big business of water and the horrors of floods and she, I'm quoting, lectures at CalArts on the "concept of HyperOpera." (I don't know what this means but surely it is meant to address the hyper, erratic, overblown aspect of opera--aspect, or sine qua non--that is, the histrionic too-muchness of opera, perhaps in order to address what happens when the "Opera/Too-much" dial continues to be turned even further up, up, up?)

In the beginning of her lecture Anne charmed us by revealing a years-long fascination with old vacuum cleaners and vacuum cleaner sounds. She played us early samples of her work, female vocalizations layered on top of recorded & processed vacuum sounds. At times the two seemed uncannily to merge, and at one point, LeBaron had the vocalist spit and buzz into the vacuum mouthpiece to produce a series of fun sounds that would probably make Kaija Saariaho jealous. LeBaron's collaborators on Sucktion include the poet Douglas Kearney, whose libretto is a clever homage to Marinetti typeface. This all seemed promising.

LeBaron saved the nugget of her presentation for last -- that is, the semi-finished, workshop staging of the opera in L.A. But this is where things started to go downhill. LeBaron later mentioned she feared that 40 minutes of vacuum sounds weren't in and of themselves interesting enough to justify the ticket prices (okay, I made that part up, but she did say she was worried the vacuuming lacked moxy) so she crafted a heavy-handed scenario to go along with them. (For the record, vacuum sounds are TOTALLY interesting. Maybe not for forty minutes, sure, but for at least 25. If John Cage can get away with Points in Space, I say go for it!)

Oppressed housewife cleans house, anticipating the arrival of her husband home from work. (The singer/actress in this case was Asian, and one grad student floated the thought that LeBaron intended the opera as a critique of interracial marriage. Or better, I thought, that the Mail Order Bride phenomenon in this country replicates/updates in the 21st century the phenomenon of the overbored, undersexed housewife of the 1950s? But LeBaron seemed uninterested; or else this was my private flight of fancy. Anyway.)

The husband arrives home (a recorded voice-over, "Honey, I'm Home"; i.e. there is no "husband"), finds the place a mess & retires for the night. Depressed, the housewife turns melancholy. A vacuum arrives. A present from her hubby. She falls in love (with the vacuum), sprawls on it orgasmically and thus the comedy endeth.

To put it simply, the problem? Too much scenario and too literal.

1. Put the husband in a locked closet stage left so that the "housewife" (or is she a dominatrix? an updated Alcina?) controls his exits and entrances.

2. Or make it Erwartung Appliance! Instead of losing her fiancé, this poor woman is in denial over the death of her beloved vacuum.

3. Or make the husband's cleanliness phobia the center of the (o_p)/e(r?)a and his hapless wife the Mrs. Haversham of the Ace Hardware Cleaning aisle.

A dash of the intellectual wit that has made LeBaron such a successful composer and a writer is needed. Instead, the staging we saw consisted of the soprano (who, by the way, is a musicologist and member of the group that commissioned the opera) putting on and taking off rubber gloves, stuffing them into her oversize apron pockets, dropping them, and putting them on again. LeBaron's score, and her ideas, play happily far off of the beaten path. But this opera needs a director so that the curiosity that motivated its inception gets taken up a notch. Staging, to honor its points of origin (the ideation of the opera, the wit and spirit of adventurousness that composers like LeBaron bring to the table), should amplify, qualify & problematize that origin; not bow to it.



Anne LeBaron said...

How gracious of you to ‘review’ my presentation of the workshop production of Sucktion on your blog. However, your post is riddled with inaccuracies, misinformation, and misrepresentations that I feel compelled to correct. First of all, I’ve never lectured at Cal Tech, but I am a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, otherwise known as CalArts---sometimes people confuse the two, although they’re vastly different. Must be the Cal.

You surely misheard me, as I would never say that Sucktion is my only opera. In fact it’s my fifth; working on the sixth now, Crescent City, excerpts performed on two VOX programs by the NYC Opera.

You took the ‘heavy handed scenario’ out of context; there are lengthy sections with no scenario, and the ‘scenario’ itself moves in and out of parody. Since I had a time limit for the presentation, screening the entire production wasn’t possible---perhaps the fact that you saw only excerpts contributed to such a one-dimensional assessment. Also, your point about my ‘missing the point’ with someone’s comment---in reference to the opera being a critique of interracial marriage (really??)---is nonsensical, since we are never privy to the ‘race’ of Irona’s husband-in-absentia. As for your remark about the casting, the soprano is a member of the ground-breaking improv ensemble, soNu, which commissioned the piece. There was no ‘casting’ and she pulled off a riveting performance.

I would have welcomed your remarks, questions, suggestions during the Q&A period after the presentation, or at the reception, leading to more of a dialogue. Anyway, wishing you many successes with the exciting endeavors underway with Opera Cabal.

Nick &/or Majel said...

Anne, Thanks so much for the corrections: I'll go ahead and make those alterations in the post, with your blessing! (Cal Tech/CalArts -- yikes!)

As you point out, not being able to screen the production in its entirety makes it tough to pick up on the parody in the production; not to mention a video screening alas rarely captures the sense of being in a live hall. But the real issue, I think, is the nature of a workshop production which (at least in my experience) foregrounds the gap between the future, imagined production, and the production that's possible in the present moment. An audience picks up on that gap immediately and it can be frustrating, since it elicits responses which are critical (which isn’t always the same as useful) but sometimes insensitive to the nature of the workshop – that is, its status precisely as provisional and in progress! Hopefully, the point is ultimately to raise questions, to open an unfinished work to review, & chance the consequences that its imagined reception may not align with the actual. (Having launched a workshop I directed this past summer I'm only too aware that it can be terribly frustrating to have an audience critique a draft of a production as though it represented the final word and I would urge you to ignore mine unless it offers points worth exploring!)

I'm hoping to get to the next VOX season so I really look forward to seeing Crescent City, and in case it wasn't obvious (clearly, it wasn't) I want to be clear that I'm not only thrilled to meet other people willing to throw themselves with abandon into the world of truly experimental opera (bring on the vacuums!) but I really welcome your comments and hope my "heavy-handedness" hasn't offended you too greatly. The bottom line is I found your presentation totally provocative and worth engaging in a serious way -- I'm sure you do too. This sort of work is an academic's playground, but shouldn't it be a battleground?! I think so, at any rate.

Please feel free to (re)review the new post and let me know if you spot any further inaccuracies. I'm not only open to dialogue but eager to promote conversation and would love to chat further about your exceptionally adventurous opera! Hats off to that.


Anne LeBaron said...

Majel, thanks for your correction. But please do make at least one other that was pointed out---Sucktion is not my 'only' opera (just the only one with a living vacuum cleaner). (Also you have a typo, I think you meant 'spit,' not 'split'.) Yes, it’s always risky to produce semi-staged works, and then to present the result as the closest manifestation of an imagined production. We were lucky that the LA Times review of the workshop production was generous, and the reviewer seemed to understand what we were aiming for.

Crescent City, after two VOX airings with two different librettists, won’t be reappearing in that context, but you can hear a few clips at:

When David Levin told me about your company earlier in the day, before the colloquium, it was very exciting to me to see what you’re doing, and I wish we’d had a chance to talk further about your upcoming season. At least I’ve had the opportunity now to look more deeply at the Opera Cabal website. Kudos to you and your collaborators for bringing opera in its newest forms into the 21st century with such aplomb and invention! Now, what do YOU think about concocting a solo vacuum cleaner aria (straight from the hose), brilliant idea floated by David, as you heard? I’m also perversely drawn to your Erwartung Appliance scenario---vacuum cleaner death throes, oh what sonorities!!! Combine the two and you get (if Irona takes on the attachments): a cyborgian Liebestod.

Nick &/or Majel said...


I think the soprano absolutely must play (or moan, or skat with) the vacuum! It sounds like some kind of heavyweight, oversized flute made out of tin, and I can only imagine student composers running to the broom closet and the garage to find other appliances worth blowing into. If they aren’t already!

But I’m totally with David: the brand new, blindingly shiny vacuum cleaner in its own spotlight, cabaret-style, singing a three-octave aria? Totally! Or should that moment be, indeed, a true death duet of Wagnerian proportions?

One question: I can’t work out if the vacuum should be animated or not—-perhaps the housewife is its puppeteer during the aria, allowing it to gesture and wheel about in suitable operatic style? (Or carted about in its very own Red Flyer wagon?) Or is it funnier that it can vocalize but is otherwise immobile? I saw a Cinderella dance production where the fairy godmother flew on and offstage on a wheeled janitor’s cart & it worked brilliantly.

I’ve taken another whack at the post. Thanks so much for your remarks about our company! We’ll finally have our new website up in a couple months with video clips of the previews we worked on this past summer (a Pierrot Lunaire, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Vesalii Icones, and a commission from Lewis Nielson called usw [und so weiter]). Would love to hear what you think!