My Year of Opera – JUNE: Robert Ashley

As I hit the mid-point of the year, I found myself in a rut. Here I was, diligently watching an opera each week, but getting really bored with it. It became an obligation. Finding something I was really excited to see was getting harder and harder. I didn’t want this to be a year of me just watching random stuff. Motivation was lacking so I took a break.

Instead of watching anything specific for the last 3 weeks of June, I instead listened to the entire recorded opera output of Robert Ashley. I did a few road trips and took them along, I accessed what we didn’t have in the CMU library via the website I didn’t approach these in any chronological order or anything, I just started with Perfect Lives and kept going with whatever seemed interesting. I’ve heard a few of them before but I never steeped myself in Ashley’s music as much as I did in June.

Why do this? Well, I was getting tired of the traditional opera tropes: big soprano arias are in the first act. Tenor arias are in the start of act 3. The lower the voice, the meaner you are. Bad things happen to innocence. Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Too many pieces are treated as Holy Relics of Serious Art and rarely does it seem like anyone is having any fun doing this. I know a lot of this has to do with the literature I’ve been watching. Short story long: I was interested in a different interpretation of opera and who better than Ashley to deliver it?

So I listened to them all. I’m not going to review each one. My favorites are Perfect Lives, the second collection of recordings from Atalanta (especially the scene “Empire” which I’d love to perform myself some day), Now Eleanor’s Idea was my favorite story, and Celestial Excursions probably contained my favorite music overall.

Ashley’s vision of opera is fascinating. Plots are pretty incoherent. Earlier this year I had read Kyle Gann’s book on Ashley so I had a vague notion of what was supposed to be happening in each opera but if you just pop the disc in and expect the story to be told to you, you are in trouble. Maybe that is why I liked Now Eleanor’s Idea so much; the plot is laid bare and the twists and turns are easy to track.

I was struck by just how consistent Ashley is in his musical textures. Static harmonies with reciting pitches is really what happens throughout. I envision a grad seminar on his music and the students cursing a “drop the needle” listening test. To my ears, everyone but Robert Ashley sounds artificial/mannered when they are singing. I can easily listen to Ashley’s voice and speech patterns regardless of what he is talking about. One day, it seemed like he was talking about real estate a lot (I listened to Foreign Experiences and eL/Aficionado the same day).

Improvement is one that I need to revisit. I had heard the opera before this binging experience and have had several key people tell me it is their favorite Ashley opera. I had a hard time connecting with it the first time I heard it and it didn’t improve much last month. That being said, the fact that others like it so much tells me that there is something there. I’ll be spinning it again in the near future, probably until it clicks.

So now I’m interested in shaking up the system a bit, looking for operas that aren’t in the conventional canon. My next entry, Doctor Atomic, doesn’t really thwart anything, but I’m going to scour the Naxos Video Library for some of their “deep cuts” and more unusual operas. I still have plans to watch Perfect Lives as soon as the DVD comes to our library. I hope that is soon. I’ve only seen clips on YouTube and want to watch the whole thing.

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