Confession used to mean you sat in a small wooden box, talked through a screen, exposed your sins and received absolution from a priest before your maker and the heavenly host.
In the '90s, you're received through a small cable box and exposed on a TV screen; you boast your conquests and get dissed by a hellacious talk-show host before your makeover in front of 30 million voyeurs.
Spilling your guts to omniscient sages like Jerry Springer, Maury Povich or Geraldo Rivera probably does nothing for the soul, but it's gold for network ratings. Whether it works for opera is something we'll see this week, when the Philharmonic Society hosts the talked-about talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland by Mikel Rouse, one of the young lions of New York's postmodern, post-minimalist Downtown music movement. The society bills it as "Opera meets Oprah." Ain't dat cute?
Directed by Rouse with set design by "MacArthur genius" John Jesurun, it's a mildly funny multimedia production staged as a live-to-tape talk show. Rouse also plays the role of Cleveland like a smooth, slimy evangelist/freak-show barker. Opera choristers act as bigmouth panelists, while locally recruited singers—some from the Orange County High School of the Arts—are audience plants. Live shots of principals and the studio audience get flashed onto video monitors suspended all around—the better to blur that division between the voyeurs and the viewed. And, against expectations, the musical language of Dennis Cleveland is way more urban rock than "operatic."
"I'm really interested in breaking opera out of the sort of European 19th-century mold," says the 42-year-old composer, "both in instrumentation and in presentation away from the proscenium stage."
In Rouse's libretto, nobody gets to say, "You go, girl!" or "Kick 'em to the curb!" But he did his homework, sitting in on enough Rickiand Monteltapings to capture that "My way or the highway!" sensibility. When it premiered at the Kitchen in Manhattan three years ago, Kyle Gann of the Village Voice couldn't contain his ecstatic pro-PoMo promo: "The most exciting and innovative new opera since Einstein on the Beach." Let's just say it's no stinkin' Traviata.
As stagecraft, Dennisis mass-culture theater in the tradition of '80s and early '90s operas like Nixon in China, Jackie O, Harvey Milk and X(as in Malcolm), but without the historical cult of celebrity. Lee Hoiby's foodie opera after a Julia Child episode, Bon Appetit!, comes close, but Dennis is hipper and more serious. It's the second in a trilogy that includes Rouse's earlier Failing Kansas (based on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood) and The End of Cinematics (on the influence of corporate-driven entertainment on modern culture).
As a child of the late '50s, television was a big-time influence on Rouse. But he has a brainy slant on it from the writings of Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul, who compares the redundant formulas of standard TV fare to religious rites and rituals—especially in the confessional nature of talk shows.
"What runs through Dennis Cleveland is a certain kind of spirituality that's seen through the prism of popular culture," Rouse explains. "Is that an answer? Is the media the new spirituality? Is the repetitiveness of television fulfilling that ritualistic aspect that you used to get from a Chinese ceremony or a Catholic Mass?"
Loaded questions coming from a strong-willed type like Rouse. Born Michael Rouse, he changed the spelling (but not the pronunciation) of his name in the third grade. He grew up in the boot-heel region of Missouri near the Arkansas border and in his teens started a Talking Heads clone band called Tirez Tirez that put out a worthy pop album in Against All Flags. But it was his 1984 piece, Quorum, scored entirely for Linn drum machine, that put him on the map as a serious composer. The late choreographer Ulysses Dove used it in his Vespers, and it's been in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertoire ever since.
A formally trained composer and visual artist, Rouse (along with the likes of Ben Neill, Art Jarvinen, Lois Vierk, John Luther Adams, Rhys Chatham and Bill Duckworth) is linked to the rock-influenced, post-minimalist subgenre called "totalism" that mixes the harmonic complexity of classical with the texture and rhythm of Asian and African music. Against the advice of academic friends who said he was "flushing his career down the toilet," Rouse's music embraces rock unambiguously.
"I have to address where I came from," he says. "[It was] a place where there was a lot of rock music, a lot of jazz, country and western. You go to a conservatory. You come to New York. You want to be sophisticated and fairly intelligent. But at the end of the day, whether you know it or not, you're either trying to escape from what you really are, or you're trying to ignore it."
The urban groove in Dennis, for instance, runs deep, so that a number like "Beautiful Murders" wouldn't sound out of place on a progressive pop radio station. "The music that I like most right now in the past five years is hip-hop," says Rouse. "It was probably the first music since I was a kid that made people say, 'Well, that's not music!' So I trust that response to mean that obviously hip-hop has had a huge cultural effect."
You can hear that impact in the complexity of his word-driven music, or "counterpoetry." Rouse writes his own lyrics, recited in a layered counterpoint of mixed meters that wildly changes the meanings. He says he hated the style at first but eventually bonded with it. Wrestling with new styles, though, isn't as bad as suffering from postmodern disease—i.e., a conflicted love-hate relationship with nostalgia, extending even to his beloved rock & roll.
"It's not like I'm saying rock's great," he demurs. "Quite frankly, I wish it was dead because that was music from my generation. One of the reasons I like hip-hop so much is because it feels like the first time that we're finally getting away from the consumer strangulation that rock and pop culture have put on society."
Dennis Cleveland has its West Coast premiere at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (949) 553-2422. Tues.-Sat., Nov. 6, 8 p.m. $25.
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