The Origin & the Return: Mike Maizels* reviews operaSHOP

As one of the only national performance troupes with what founder Majel Connery describes as a “scholarly imperative,” Opera Cabal is exploring the complex territory between musical, dramatic and choreographed performance to interrogate the future of opera. Responding to the growing demand for creative endeavors combined with hands-on scholarship, Opera Cabal has partnered with High Concept Laboratories to create operaSHOP, a venue for artists outside the purview of traditional opera to develop experimental, short-form productions that challenge the operatic status quo. This season, operaSHOP is pleased to present a pair of work by Princeton composers Elliot Cole and Caroline Shaw that respectively revisit the Classical and Baroque roots of contemporary opera.

Elliot Cole's De Rerum combines imaginative erudition with flights of oratorical invention to re-envision Lucretius' epic poem "De Rerum Natura." Originally commissioned by the Roman Praetor Gaius Memmius in the 1st century B.C.E. to palliate his fear of death, "De Rerum Natura" (“On the Nature of Things”) provided Lucretius with an opportunity to present a compelling, comprehensive and highly lyrical account of the universe according to the principles of Epicurean philosophy. Many of these principles, such as the dictum to maximize human happiness and the de-emphasis of divine interference, are startlingly modern. Thomas Jefferson was the proud owner of five copies of "De Rerum Natura."

But it is "De Rerum"’s insistence on physical explanation for observable phenomena that makes Lucretius' work almost uncanny to the contemporary reader. Indeed, Lucretius explains the origins of the universe not in the stirring of immortal gods but through the motions of elementary particles. Lucretius describes a kind of primeval state in which all of the constituent “atoms” of the universe fell in perfect and timeless parallel with one another, a sea of homogenous stasis. The world as we know it, according to Lucretius, was born from the clinamen, a word often translated as “deviation” or “swerve.” One particle inexplicably veered from its trajectory and perturbed its neighbor, beginning a cascade of collisions that gave rise to vortices of chaos and, eventually, pockets of order in which life could flourish. Call it the Little Bang Theory.

Cole's De Rerum opens by revisiting this evocative scene, blending Lucretius with an array of other creation stories both ancient (Judeo-Christian and Hindu) and contemporary (Michel Serres’ The Birth of Physics and Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness). Lucretius portrays a world that arises from the power of ramifying angles, while the cherubim and seraphim responding to the Horn of Michael present one comprised of dancing angels. This particular pairing highlights one the most significant features of the primordial soup of explanation in which Cole’s work begins: the contrast between physical and verbal theories of First Cause. In Cole's hands, Lucretius' physical clinamen becomes the counterpoint to the verbalized Christian logos and the Hindu OM, while the origins of spatial geometry cited in Serres' Birth of Physics parallels Jaynes’ explication of the genesis of cultural consciousness in the emergence of written language.

This tension between the material and the lexical animated the origin of Cole's De Rerum, a work itself largely about origins. As a composer, Cole has developed a sustained exploration perceptual and cognitive thresholds, levels at which a reader or audience member cannot process further information. In De Rerum, this saturation unfolds between the written score of the text and the physical event of its recitation, an event which seems to derive in equal measure from Classical rhetoric and contemporary hip hop. While the sheer density of textual allusion pushes the reader’s ability to tease apart the densely woven carpet of ideas, the dazzling speed of the work’s recitation heightens the sense of philosophical, scientific and literary excess. The result is a work that, on first pass, seems to overflow all of its boundaries—historical, informational, temporal—but that clarifies as readers and viewers return to plumb its depths.

In this layering, Cole’s De Rerum participates in a longstanding tradition of revisionary readings of Lucretius’ epic that stretches back to the early medieval period. Sixth- and seventh-century thinkers such as St. Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede authored versions of "De Rerum," reading Lucretius’ Epicurean doctrines through the still-crystallizing lens of Christian orthodoxy. And as Dr. Stephen Greenblatt has argued, glosses on Lucretius by Renaissance Humanists such as Poggio helped solidify the faith in secular reasoning that formed the crux of western European modernity. Like Isidore, Bede and Poggio and before him, Cole does not seek to recover an authentic De Rerum Natura but rather to revisit Lucretius’ epic for the ways in which it helps clarify the theories of the present. For Cole, this present is one in which the recent scientific embrace of deeply mystical questions about origins—such as the rise of matter, the birth of geometry or the dawn of humanity—resonates with ancient speculation about the Divine within all things.

While Elliot Cole’s De Rerum is focused on beginnings, Caroline Shaw’s Ritornello addresses the notion of the return. Drawing its title from the “little returns” of musical phrases popular amongst Baroque composers such as Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, Shaw’s Ritornello reimagines the possibility of musical returns through the use of the contemporary looping pedal. This tool enables the soloist Shaw slowly to organize disconnected sounds into complex music before the audience. We listen as recurrence upon recurrence builds until reaching a tipping point. What began as silence punctuating disparate musical gestures—a plucked string, a strummed viola body, a sung phrase—coalesces into a cohesive and beautiful soundscape with the depth and complexity one would expect only from a multi-instrument ensemble.

This sense of creation ex nihilo also frames the highly poetic visual elements of Ritornello. A blank map skirts haltingly around the projection screen behind Shaw, folding and unfolding itself in an act of seemingly supernatural origami. Eventually the skittish sheet settles itself and as the camera zooms in, lines begin to assemble themselves on its surface. A simple house emerges organically out of the blankness. A hand appears to produce a dense forest of curvilinear marks, which of their own accord, transform themselves into a bearded face.

As the text suggests, this face is that of the famously bearded Rip Van Winkle. According to the original version of the tale authored by Washington Irving in the early 19th century, Rip was a beloved if eccentric inhabitant of a small village of Dutch immigrants living in the Catskill Mountains in the mid 18th century. Seeking to avoid further hounding from his nettlesome wife, the only villager for whom Rip’s eccentricities seem to outweigh his charms, Rip sets out to wander the mountains with his dog, Wolf. Alone in the woods with his dog and his thoughts, Rip is startled to hear his name. He discovers a man wearing antiquated clothing in the midst of carrying a heavy keg up the mountain, and he offers his assistance. As the two wordlessly reach their summit, they encounter a group of similarly dressed men with long beards and Rip decides to sample the keg he helped to carry. He falls into a deep and infamous sleep.

Upon awaking, he finds everything different. His dog and the strange men are gone. Even more disconcertingly, Rip has himself grown a lengthy beard like that of his erstwhile companions. He returns to his village and finds no one whom he recognizes. He is saddened to discover that his wife has passed away and that his friends have died in a mysterious war. Mercifully, he is recognized and taken in by his now-adult daughter and together they surmise that Rip had been asleep for twenty years.

In one way, the tale of Rip Van Winkle is perhaps one of the strangest takes on an event that barely figures in its pages, the American Revolution. While Rip has a humorous close-call upon wandering back into town and enthusiastically declaring himself a loyal subject of King George, Irving’s story raises complex questions about the means by which individuals construct identities and meaning in their lives. Rip’s fellow villagers express envy for the fact that Rip was able to sleep through the privations of the war, but for Rip this good fortune is definitively double-edged. Not only did it deprive him of the process of aging alongside his contemporaries (or in many cases, dying in combat with them), it also served to reduce him to redundancy. No event seems to rattle Rip more than finding his son, whom he does not recognize, identifying himself as Rip Van Winkle. As such, the elder Rip becomes a kind of living ghost. Cut off from the natural rhythms of individual and communal life, the anchors of his personal and social meaning have been lost in the crevices of a universal map folding back into itself, or into the silences that separate remembered musical reverberations.

While neither work is composed as an explicit comment about the operatic format itself, the pairing of De Rerum and Ritornello nevertheless offers a commentary on the act of composing contemporary opera. In their respective examination of mythic origins and unprecedented returns, these works suggest a shared sense of creating work in the wake of an ostensibly finished history. For Cole and Shaw, composing becomes an act of retrospective imagining, a re-envisioning of a moment of origin that is always already mythologized or lost into the crumpling folds of time. It seems that to start over in opera, one must enact at least a little return. It is to the investigation of such ritornelli that operaSHOP and Opera Cabal are dedicated.

*Mike Maizels is currently PhD candidate in the History of Art at the University of Virginia and a research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution—National Portrait Gallery. While his historical research focuses on the emergence of process and performance art in the 1970s, he is also committed to engaging with the truly contemporary and emerging art of the present moment. Mike was the inaugural scholar in residence at High Concept Laboratories, a scholar at large with Opera Cabal, and has continued his work with a number of other HCL artists. Further information can be found on his website,

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