ADVENTURES IN YES

Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.

January 28, 2015

ADVENTURES IN YES: "Caged Birds Sing, and You'll Want to Listen."

Grand opera bumps into contemporary dance, and the results are transforming.

Erica Mott's "3 Singers"

Remember the commercial where two guys are walking down the street toward each other, one munching on a chocolate bar and the other scooping spoonfuls of peanut butter out of a jar? And then they bump into each other, and one of them says “Hey! You got your chocolate in my peanut butter,” and the other says “Hey! You got your peanut butter all over my chocolate,” and voila! They’ve invented the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

It’s a great TV spot. I saw it more than forty years ago, and I still remember it, and I bet a lot of you do, too. It’s also a great idea – two things that you wouldn’t normally think of, coming together and making something great. Happens all the time, both on the smallest scale (like when a couple of H’s bumping into an O) and on a grander one (when two single people meet and become a great couple, or perhaps even more to the point, having a child – “Hey, you got your chromosomes all over my chromosomes!”).

It happens in the arts, too. If you substitute Lyric Opera’s “Tosca” for the chocolate and Erica Mott’s “3 Singers” for the peanut butter, as I did last week, then you wind up with one hell of great Reese’s Cup.

I’m sure I would have loved these productions if I saw them years apart, on their own terms, as the very separate artistic entities that they are. They’re terrific, smart shows, and I’d tell anyone who likes music, theater, dance or, you know, being alive to see them both. But together, they offered me something quite new, and quite transformative. I don't know how the universe managed to align these two remarkable experiences so that I could see them within 24 hours and a few blocks of each other, but I'm certainly grateful it did.

I realize that “Tosca” and “3 Singers” are so different in scale, presentation and execution that it might seem odd to talk about them in the same sentence. The first is being performed by one of the world’s great opera companies in grand concert hall, while the other was created with almost no money (but considerable vision) by an emerging and, from all indications, brilliant young artist and staged in a makeshift theater inside a building in which few theater, dance or music goers have ever been. One is traditional grand opera; the other is a most contemporary hybrid of movement, music, video and sound design.

I saw one on a Wednesday, the other on Thursday. One experience bumped right into the other. And suddenly... “Hey! You got your contemporary performance art all over my opera!”

I saw “Tosca” first, so let’s start there.

I really like opera, especially Puccini. The guy knows his way around a tune and a gut-punching love story. I’ve seen all of his operas except one, most of them multiple times, and they never get old to me. And having seem them so often, I didn’t think they could surprise me anymore, not really, and certainly not to the point where I’d find myself tearing up. But then this Lyric production of “Tosca” unfolded before my eyes and ears with simple, stunning theatricality, and there I am, reaching for the Kleenex at the final curtain.

I hesitate to describe “Tosca” simply as a romantic tragedy. It is that, for sure -- the story of the fiery, impulsive star of the stage caught up in a struggle between her lover Cavaradossi and the villainous police chief Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca and has it out for Cavaradossi, and will only let Cavaradossi off of death row if he can have Tosca in exchange. With that set-up, and knowing this is Italian opera, it’s no surprise that the ending is less than happy.

This is also the kind story that only exists if the genders of the characters are what they are. Even in our relatively enlightened but still too-often repressive, brutal and sexist 21st century, it’s rare to see a man caught between two women like this. If women were placed in Scarpia and Cavaradossi’s positions, for better or worse they’d be a lot smarter than these guys. And if a man were in Tosca’s position, he wouldn’t have had her considerable nerve.

Still, Tosca is often a portrayed one-dimensionally as nothing more than an object of desire, and that leaves a lot of great dramatic potential at the door.

Not this time. John Caird’s thoughtful direction roots itself in the psychological horror of a woman caught up not just in an awful and impossible situation but also, more insidiously, in a culture so misogynistic that the awful bargain for Cavaradossi’s freedom could be so easily suggested by a man in power, with the full expectation that he’s going to get his way. This Scarpia’s most odious quality is that he doesn’t realize how odious he is. Neither society nor his own moral compass requires it. That means he’s not particularly present or altogether bright, and yet he’s still got all the power in the world, until Tosca stops his ruthless heart, that is, and even in his last moments, he still thinks of himself as noble and fair, with no understanding that he’s dying precisely because he’s a sexist, brutal, repressive monster.

In contrast, this Tosca is smart and savvy, and is startling and fascinating to watch as she careens from hopeful to hopeless again and again. Her strength and power is both impressive and ultimately heartbreaking, because in this world, at this time, it’s never going to be enough to save her or her lover. Her situation is wrenching, and the resulting drama is thrillingly, crushingly effective, and quite relatable. For all of our advances, a base unfairness and inequality between the genders still rears its ugly head all the time, all over the world.

This was theatrical opera doing what theatrical opera does best. Only in contexts like this can you get something this huge, filled with enormous sounds and sights and grandeur. And when it’s done just right, it still somehow feels emotionally, stirringly intimate. There’s really nothing quite like it.

That said, on the night after I saw “Tosca,” I was reminded that it’s possible to turn that kind of experiences inside out and experience something equally extraordinary. Erica Mott’s “3 Singers” is being performed not in an ornate concert hall but at The National Museum of Health & Medicine in downtown Chicago, which, interestingly, used to be the headquarters for The Chicago Federation of Musicians, and might be why the show sounds so great. You could probably fit the entire theater onto the Civic Opera House stage three times over.

It is as up close and personal as a dance and music performance gets. But this show’s impact is massive, and I found myself reeling just as much from three young woman dancing and vocalizing in this tiny space in the company of a hundred people as I had been the day before listening to international opera stars in one of the country’s grandest theaters in the company of thousands. “3 Singers” couldn’t have been more intimate, but holy smokes, was it huge.

I’m not entirely sure what to tell you about “3 Singers.” The extensive program notes feature fascinating annotations on what this piece is and how and why it came to be, and it’s both great reading and a reminder to me that I really need to read and know more than I do. And that’s all fine. Great art not only empowers and ennobles but also humbles, and I love that.

But while too many other shows with the intellectual and historical heft of “3 Singers” are more interested in telling you what their creators know than in providing you a memorable night in a theater, “3 Singers” never falls into that trap. You don’t have to know anything about it to be mesmerized. It’s a fever dream of sights and sounds, and its singer/dancers possess astonishing voices that could be just as home on an operatic stage as in a B-52’s cover band. Hearing them take their voices from bel canto to Yoko Ono while spinning across the stage and moving set pieces across the stage reminded me that in addition to needing to read and learn more, I also need to spend more time at the gym.

And here’s where we get to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

A day after spending time with one of Puccini’s great heroines, and seeing her story played out for all the world to see, now in the intimate performance space created in the Museum of History and Medicine, I found myself thinking, “Maybe this is what it must feel like to be inside Tosca’s mind.” To be seen, and desired, and objectified, and then being both idealized and vilified – maybe “3 Singers” is giving me a chance to see the embodiment of how tortuous it is to experience that, know how horrific it is, and not be able to do anything about it.

Lyric’s “Tosca” takes place around the turn of the 20th century, and much of “3 Singers” historical context comes from around that time as well; more than a hundred years later, men are still treating women like this, and the brilliance of these shows is that they don’t tell you that so much as make you realize it, and realize that it’s still happening. Look no further than our recent headlines and congressional debates for more proof than you’d ever need.

I’m feeling self-conscious at this point, fearing that perhaps I’m describing these shows as brutal experiences for the audience. Trust me. They’re not. They are thrillingly entertaining shows, which may provoke and challenge, but never punish or chastise. Neither lets us off the hook, but both are steeped in generosity, letting us enjoy what we see, hear and feel, and then inviting us to take our ideas and experiences and better selves out of the theater and into the world, and to act and feel a little differently.

If that sounds burdensome, honestly, it isn’t. It’s exhilarating.

And delicious.

"Tosca" runs at Lyric Opera of Chicago through March 14, “3 Singers” runs at The National Museum of Health & Medicine in downtown Chicago through Feb 1.

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