at Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University

May 22-24 and 28-31

A man appears to have leapt over a seat in order to find his way out of the Josephine Louis Theatre midway through Johannes Birringer’s ambitious multimedia experimental opera Orpheus and Eurydike. It isn’t every day you see a man of 60 leap over a seat. By the end of the opera, some 20 people out of an audience of 120 or so will have left.

Why? Why were some people making frenzied attempts to escape this “feminist-inspired” two-hour reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth using new music, dance, theater, film, and video? The answer lies in the question: too many elements, poorly edited and orchestrated, strung together.

Without careful editing or an honest investigation of the patriarchal sensibility, Birringer’s collaboration with composers Gwynne Ginsberg, Patricia Morehead, and Tim Tobias threatens to take both the audience and the actors into a chaotic netherworld–something like the hell to which Eurydike herself has been damned through Orpheus’ lack of faith in her presence and the hell into which Orpheus journeys. His journey represents the exploration of his own psyche, a noble endeavor. The suffering Eurydike must endure comes from being the innocent or unwitting embodiment of male desire, at the mercy of the male gaze, and his from being an Orpheus, a “gazer.”

But I hungered not for a man’s interpretation of feminism, but for Birringer’s own true voice as “the gazer.” Not the same old male obsession with young women as representations of truth and beauty or innocence, and with the salvation possible in a dalliance with a Eurydice. I wanted a flip-flop of this traditional male artistic stance, “looking out,” to an artistic stance of looking within and addressing the issues of a man’s identity at this time. I wanted to see his portrait, his monologue, his struggle with identity, his “apologia pro vita sua.” I wanted to feel it, see it, have it rubbed in my face. I did not want his interpretation of my (everywoman’s/Eurydike’s) struggle. Just as we are now suspicious of white interpretations of the African American sensibility, so I am suspicious when an artist or writer seeks to interpret or reinterpret the feminine. Every time a man seeks to explain how it feels to be under “the male gaze,” a true female voice is subverted. To his credit, perhaps the fact that Birringer is attempting to answer these questions marks a turning point, the beginning of the male gaze turning inward on itself.

The amount of extraneous matter in this opera–the gratuitous images, music, film, and text–further obscures what should have been its essence. If Birringer had grasped at the heart of the masculine struggle, there might have been something true, moving, and transforming for the audience.

Take the beginning of Orpheus and Eurydike. Pink and blue early-morning light (lighting by John Miller) colors the back wall, seeming to promise redemption. Images are projected on two big screens: birds, Johannes Birringer himself, staring staight at the viewer, David Bowie, performer Elise Kermani, an ancient Grecian bust toppling to the floor. Does this last image represent the end of postmodernism, the end of a patriarchal society, death, or Orpheus descending? A dancer is making sounds, contorting her mouth as she does so. A samurai is standing stage right. A hooded figure in black moves across the stage from the left, a prosaic “death” (Bergman comes to mind). There are now four figures onstage. A strange sculptural corset hangs stage left. The overhead lights are rows of squares above the stage, and we also see a video camera, cables, and a small desk stage right. Birringer straddles the camera tripod, barefoot.

Six figures in space, reaching out, then withdrawing their hands, striking their own bodies. (Over and over the actors will touch their mouths and their bodies with their hands, as though their hands will form the words that their minds and voices cannot.) Laughter and sound in the audience, actorly “plants.” Within the first 15 minutes, we will have seen numerous metaphorical images. A person in red high heels, swathed in white like a mummy with a veiled head, inches across the stage like a worm or caterpillar. A beautiful girl is struggling and screaming, wearing what appears to be the dull green gown of someone in a mental institution. The hysterical woman? A man’s interpretation of the feminist sensibility. Or is she angry? She’s obviously hysterical! Calm her down! She’s placed in a Plexiglas tub and bathed. Has she died? Is she being prepared for death? Is she being purified in some way station on the astral plane? What is this ritual? Now someone is wearing the corset that had been hanging stage left.

We cannot see the forest for the trees in this opera. With Wagnerian weight, it hammers home every symbol, every truth, every revelation. Shoes, for example–red shoes (The Red Shoes), high-heeled shoes, symbolic of a woman’s sex, her vanity, her being crippled in our society. We see women in shoes. We see women in evening gowns. We see women in evening gowns pushing lawn mowers in high heels. We see women with big breasts, medium breasts, small breasts. We see women who are tall, short, redheaded, blond, and brunette–all beautiful, all clutching their breasts, hitting their bodies with their fists–symbolizing the self-loathing and compartmentalization of our bodies wrought by the unbroken male gaze. A token older woman wears a donkey head and falsies and tap-dances.

Birringer exploits everything that’s fashionable and sensational. A man walks across the stage in drag: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. High heels, a wig, tight dress, the works. Will this outfit get Eurydike back? Orpheus and Eurydike both appear nude, facing the audience. She is wearing a mirror on her head that reflects him (the male gazer sees only himself when he looks at her, and she disappears). He has a box and places it first over his penis, then his solar plexus, then his face, and repeats the sequence over and over, obsessively, as if he can’t break out of this pattern.

Yet there are also elements that are beautiful. The costumes, especially the red high heels, are lovely. So is some of the choreography, which the performers devised themselves. Two women–one in a white gown, one in a black suit–play Eurydike. In this breathtaking dance, the couple’s symbolic last chance to be together, they fall to the floor, embrace, and roll, and roll, and roll toward the wall.

Believe it or not, this experimental opera does have possibilities: at present it seems a work in progress, and in that lies hope. The length needs to be edited down by at least half. The video images (by Birringer, Eli Brown, and Lap-Chi Chu), though powerful in places, need more polish and less extraneous information. Every single video and film element must be absolutely clear, for at times they seemed gratuitous when juxtaposed against the choreography and the singing. It was all simply too much to take in at once.

Perhaps this was intentional. It’s hard to imagine that anything in this production was actually accidental. Everything seemed planned and orchestrated, from Birringer straddling his camera barefoot (i.e., making love to his production) to the placement of the performers in the space to Margaret Kendrick’s fabulous costume design. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of scrupulous planning in and of itself. The 22 performers and several collaborators exhibited a staggering, almost awe-inspiring amount of talent. The orchestrations and musical production by Winsberg, Tobias, and Morehead were absolutely wonderful: rich, varied, and exciting. The singing, by Bonita Hyman, Isabelle Ganz, and Elise Kermani, was strong and moving. Yet I was left unmoved. Perhaps if this ambitious effort were carefully edited and gained a true voice, a male voice, it could become the breathtaking work it was clearly intended to be.

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