Three Tales

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

October 3 and 4

The Sound of a Voice

Court Theatre

Steve Reich’s score for Three Tales is like a beehive in the heart. The sound swarms, filling the listener with a thick, vibratory hum of strings, percussion, pianos, and layered voices–some live, some recorded and distorted at times into electronic moans. The effect is at once chaotic and purposeful; relentless, dark, seemingly fragmented yet powerful in the aggregate, ordered and beautiful at its core. Oddly majestic, even as its million bees of sound climb all over one another.

Oddly reassuring, too, given the disquieting vision the music helps convey. Described–more or less accurately–as a multimedia opera, Three Tales depicts what Reich and his collaborator, video artist Beryl Korot, take to be iconic moments in the technological arc of the 20th century: the explosion of the zeppelin Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937; the testing of nuclear bombs at Bikini atoll starting in 1946; and the birth of a cloned sheep, Dolly, in Edinburgh in 1997. Despite all that these events imply about our human penchant for innovating ourselves into oblivion, Three Tales manages to discover something beautiful and ordered at our core.

The Hindenburg explosion is presented first, as the last gasp of the mechanistic mind-set that enabled the industrial revolution. Korot’s video shows the great steel skeleton on which the zeppelin’s skin was stretched; images of mechanics holding heavy tools form a repeated motif. And the sight of the burning, earthbound hulk inevitably suggests that great all-purpose symbol of extinction: a dinosaur in its death throes.

But if the Hindenburg embodies a dead technology, its spectacular demise was captured by a young, distinctly vigorous one. As Reich points out in an interview included in the Three Tales program, the crash was “the first major disaster captured on film.” The further development of photography and motion pictures becomes a subtext of the second tale–the one about the Bikini nuclear tests–because those tests were so copiously documented. “Five hundred photographers, seven hundred cameras, and half the world’s supply of film,” sings a trio of tenors, quoting the New York Times on the image-making firepower brought to bear.

After Osama bin Laden’s media event of September 11, 2001, it might be argued that the 700 cameras at Bikini represented greater potential destructive power than the bombs they were immortalizing. But at the time and for the next five decades, nuclear fission constituted the latest in Armageddon. Korot’s images alternate among scenes of Bikini islanders being evacuated from their homes, U.S. military preparations, and Jenny Holzer-ish snatches of text from Genesis referring–effectively if heavy-handedly–to man’s dominion over the earth and God’s stricture against eating from the tree of knowledge. All the while we hear and see a slow countdown to the blast.

Like Reich’s score, the images are gorgeous. Korot has developed techniques that allow her to give photographs painterly qualities. A picture of a catamaran seems to become a canvas by Winslow Homer. Bikinians morph, eerily, into Gauguin Tahitians.

At first it seemed to me that Korot’s beautiful distortions were meant to romanticize the islanders, whose paradisiacal home was about to be irradiated. But then she turned the blast itself into an alarmingly beautiful pointillist study in yellows, and a new element of ambiguity was introduced.

And grew, as the opera segued into the tale of Dolly the sheep. Mainly comprising interviews with scientists and ethicists–as well as one or two scientists with ethics–the final section of Three Tales deals with a newer, much subtler style of Armageddon in which human identity is manipulated, perhaps obliterated, by genetic and digital means. Again, it seems at first that Reich and Korot’s attitude toward the subject is pretty clear. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins appears on-screen, commenting that “we and all other animals are machines created by our genes,” and is promptly reduced to a stuttering silhouette that replicates a la Dolly. Meanwhile, people who offer a more spiritual vision of life, like Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, are allowed to retain their visual and sonic dignity.

But the business of taking sides gets more complicated when we encounter Cynthia Breazeal and Kismet, the robot she built at MIT. Fitted with E.T. eyes, caterpillar eyebrows, big pink ears, and red lips, Kismet is a “socially intelligent humanoid robot,” as Breazeal describes him/her/it on her Web site. Kismet is also cute, and as Breazeal says at one point in the video, “sort of alive.” At the end of the opera we see her chatting sweetly with her robotic “baby.” Coming after the Hindenburg and Bikini, after Dawkins and Steinsaltz–but most of all after 70 minutes of Reich and Korot’s absolute mastery–the moment has an aura reminiscent of the final scene in Rosemary’s Baby, when Mia Farrow gathers up her crying demon child to calm it as only a mother can. We’re not doomed by our technology. We’re doomed because we’re human. And that, somehow, is our triumph.

The other day I was driving south on Sheridan Road when I saw Philip Glass pass me, headed north. I knew it was him because he had that wild head of hair and that vast pale forehead tied at the bottom with a knot of eyebrows. That intense, scowly genius stare you see in his photos. Maybe it’s the stare that led me to expect more of The Sound of a Voice, an evening of two original chamber operas running now at Court Theatre. After all, when you’re dealing with a stare–not to mention an epochal body of work–like Glass’s you assume a degree of ambition, which is unfortunately missing from this show.

Unfortunately and very strangely missing, because The Sound of a Voice not only has a great composer in Glass but a celebrated librettist in David Henry Hwang and a prestigious director in Robert Woodruff. The cast consists of four strong actor-singers supported by a quartet of sharp instrumentalists under the musical direction of Alan Johnson, who’s worked with Glass for 15 years. Min Xiao-Fen’s solos on a sort of Chinese guitar called the pipa are wonderful to experience. Robert Israel’s set is witty and spare. And the operas’ story lines suggest intriguing speculations on the irreconcilable conflicts between staying and going, honor and love.

And yet the production communicates nothing so much as tedium. While Woodruff and his actors are able to create lovely visual passages (despite some egregiously ugly costuming by Kasia Walicka Maimone), Hwang’s librettos disappoint, taking archetypes from the Japanese folk and theatrical traditions and deflating them to the level of colloquial melodrama. Worse, the music comes across as little more than a combination of familiar Japanese and Glassian tropes. Beautiful at times because the tropes themselves are beautiful, but tossed off.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Feldman.