Multimedia opera mixes striking images with tedious dancing

Sat Oct 23, 2010 at 10:42 am

By Wynne Delacoma

"Sunset Landscape" by Ma Lin (13th century).

Composer and visual artist Kyong Mee Choi certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

The title of her one-act opera, which had its world premiere Friday at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, is The Eternal Tao. Its text is drawn from the ancient Chinese poems that gave rise to one of the world’s most enduring philosophical systems. The 80-minute work is a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk—an intricately plotted layering of music (both acoustic and electronic), text, dance, visual art, lighting and projected images.

It is a piece that could have very easily sunk under its own, densely conceptual weight. That it managed, for most of its 12 sections, to stay afloat is a testament both to Choi’s vision and the dedicated musicians, singers and dancers working with her. Michael Lewanski conducted the dal niente ensemble, and the vocal soloists, appearing with a four-member chorus, were mezzo-soprano Julie Ann Zavata and baritone Brad Jungwirth.

Kyong Mee Choi

In a preconcert discussion with Stephen Burns, artistic director of the vibrant Fulcrum Point ensemble, Choi talked about her preference for artwork that blossoms organically. But Eternal Tao worked best when it focused on a high-tech blend of electronic and acoustic music and emotionally shaded, projected images.

The abstract images that slowly melted into one another on a huge screen at the rear of the stage were full of visceral power. Some looked like primitive x-rays–sharp, white strokes surrounded by shadowy, vaguely unsettling shapes. Others were more definable—fierce outlines that became soft human hands washed with a faint hint of sickly pink blood; robust autumn leaves eventually smothered by snowy white. Nothing was clear, but the sense of constant metamorphosis was unmistakable.

The music was also constantly shifting. Waves of electronic sound—distant thunder, angelic voices, gently jangling bells, crinkling paper–surrounded us. Dal niente’s musicians, from a languorous saxophone to tense violin, effortlessly rode the sonic waves.

The production’s single most jarring element was the choreography for its three dancers—Allison Anich, Mei-Kuang Chen and Natalie Williams. Slim in their diaphanous white gowns, full of ardor and yearning as they slowly sank and rose, they couldn’t have danced more beautifully.

But Ganz Hall’s sightlines are terrible for dance. Whenever the dancers sank to the floor for extended periods—as they often did—most of the audience couldn’t see what they were doing. And too much of their choreography was simply swaying and leaning, sinking and rising. In its dance-heavy sections, The Eternal Tao seemed tediously endless.

At times, the singers also were deployed awkwardly. The program listed no choreographer, but Choi was credited as both director and producer. The mood of The Eternal Tao was contemplative and unhurried, and the standing-room-only audience was extremely attentive. But the composer didn’t seem to trust the power of the piece. There was no need for the singers to add sharp, meaningless arm gestures to their meditations on deafening sounds and blinding colors. Their unpredictable, swooping songs told us everything we needed to know about eyes too blind to see.

Posted in Performances


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