I was not expecting to watch most of this opera on a screen. It’s not that I have anything against live video: in fact, I think it can be used to thrilling effect (Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War comes to mind) as long as the creation of said video is integral to the projecting of it. For it to be successful, it’s key to see the live performance that is then being transferred to video. Otherwise, we’re just watching a movie.
Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman’s Acquanetta recently made its world premiere in a production directed by Daniel Fish as part of the annual PROTOTYPE Festival. The singers were kept in a rectangular shoebox for most of the opera’s ten scenes, our only access to them being a single camera on a rotating platform that sent the image to a screen on the other side of the stage. You see, Acquanetta was a film star, or rather, a B-movie actress called Mildred Davenport who refashioned herself into “The Venezuelan Volcano” and adopted the pseudonym from which the opera takes its title. Gordon was inspired by the obituary of this long-forgotten star and approached Artman about creating an opera over 13 years ago.
Artman’s libretto is fashioned after a three-minute scene from Acquanetta’s breakout film, Captive Wild Woman, a convoluted picture from 1943 involving an ape and a mad scientist, both of whom make the leap to the opera. It is also about Davenport’s layering of mystery upon mystery in the creation of her screen persona. Acquanetta’s background was unclear, as was her racial identity. In her opening aria, Artman’s Acquanetta sings things like, “Conceal me, disguise me, obscure me, exchange me,” and “Blur me, invert me, camouflage me, transmute me.” In Fish’s production, a makeup artist applies her face as the gifted soprano, Mikaela Bennett, sings into a camera mere inches from her face. The metaphor is not lost. The identity of the singer is obscured by her portrayal of the character as Mildred Davenport once took on her own new life as Acquanetta.
The video is crucial to these early moments; it brings us into a tight, immediate connection with Acquanetta and establishes the filmic mise-en-scène in which the opera will function. It never branches out of this, though. The fixed camera can rotate in a circle and zoom in and out, but it can’t break free of its moorings and give any perspective or deliver anything beyond a closeup. Theatre and opera are told in the equivalent of a longshot: full bodies are on display, head to foot. Film thrives above the waist and, often, above the chest, but it’s a different method of storytelling and the story that’s being told needs to be adapted for the medium in which it’s being presented. When, at last, the door of the singers’ shoebox slides open and they all step out in the opera’s final seconds, it is a thrilling taste of how dynamic the entire opera could have been had the push/pull between film and live performance been explored more thoroughly.
To give credit where it’s due, the video work, from a cinematographic standpoint, is pretty stellar. The characters move in and out of the frame in interesting compositions and, since the camera is almost constantly filled by one character in the foreground, Fish creates minor shifts in whatever fills the background or negative space as the camera whirls around on its platform. These include a character munching a bag of popcorn that gets progressively larger each time the pan wipes across him, which I found particularly delightful. In trying to evoke the ‘40s B-movie stylization in the video, Fish and video designer Joshua Higgason have crafted something that feels more like a cross between David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the fixed fisheye camera of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream than the period from which Acquanetta hailed.
Gordon’s composition is a pounding rock-influenced score in which the vocal lines sit amongst a wailing electric guitar and razoring strings. Acquanetta is given a recurring vocalization which is described in the libretto as a yodel, but, as set by Gordon and sung by Bennett, coupled with the visuals of Fish’s production, comes out like a war cry. It is a rallying call in the time of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up legal defense fund from one woman in Hollywood whose time has faded and been forgotten to the hundreds in the limelight now.