Opera is one of the oldest multidisciplinary arts that is still being created today. Vocals, acting, live music, costume, set, and lighting design, as well as other artistic elements, combine to create a performative art that is complex. As a person who deeply enjoys art that utilizes more than one discipline, I’m a bit surprised that opera has never really appealed to me. That is, until recently. And I have R.B. Schlather and the Whitebox Art Center to thank.
At the end of September, I was invited to attend a performance of R.B. Schlather’s direction of George Frideric Handels’s 1735 baroque opera Alcina at Whitebox Art Center in New York City. What I saw was mesmerizing. It would be remiss of me to not first mention R.B. Schlather himself. When I saw him in the Whitebox lobby for the small, donor and press only performance of Alcina, the first word that came to mind was sorcerer. Wearing a long, black dress that matched his equally dark, pin straight hair, and black platform shoes, he exuded a distinctively tranquil presence. Quite honestly, he seemed to be floating.
Schlather is an opera director based in New York City who has recently worked on Werther for Opera Company Brooklyn and Treemonisha for New York City Opera. He regularly assists Christopher Alden, most recently at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Lyric Opera, English National Opera, New York City Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company. Schlather directed Alcina specifically for Whitebox’s WhiteboxLab > SoundLounge, as a “response to the changing landscape of operative performance in New York City and around the world.” And after seeing Schlather’s theatrical installation of Alcina, I’m certain that one has to possess some type of magic in order to create a work of art as bewitching as this.
The opera takes place on Alcina’s island, named for the sorceress who uses her powers to create a beautiful land to which knights are instantly lured. The opera singers were expressive, captivating, and their vocals, absolutely gorgeous. The orchestra: intimate and powerful. The setting was unconventional: a non-proscenium stage which contained minimal scenery, a trap door that folded up into stairs, and a hole cut in the bottom left section of the sage for the singers to enter and exit the space. The English translation of the Italian being sung was projected in real time onto two walls which could be easily read while watching the performance. It was a multisensory, multidisciplinary, powerful experience.
As the name suggests, the main exhibition space of Whitebox is a large, rectangular space with white walls and a concrete floor, which allowed the audience to create our own ideas about what the island on which the opera took place looked like. The stark whiteness of the walls also made the lipstick that was kissed onto them by the singers – especially when they returned to the mark to kiss it or hit it, depending on their emotional state– all the more poignant.
I sat attentively the entire time, feeling indeed that “in portraying Alcina’s thickened plot, Schlather’s production brought to life a story of enchantment, folding into it classic operatic moments of romance, betrayal, violence, unrequited love, and magic,” which is what the description of the work’s premise promised. I was not disappointed. In fact, I left a fan of opera.
What is the current state of operatic performance in New York City and elsewhere? Sadly, it’s an art form that, like so many others, is seeing a decline in patrons as well as a decrease in the number of attendees. The costs of a production is high and clearly reflected in the ticket fee, pricing people who are not able to pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket out of the operatic experience. The Huffington Post published an interesting article that outlines the basics of the situation, which you can read here.
So what then are those involved, in love, or just plain intrigued with the opera to do? And more importantly, how can opera be enjoyed by those who can’t afford to attend a performance due to exorbitant ticket prices? Whitebox Art Center, a 501 [c](3) not-for-profit arts organization’s presentation of R.B. Schlather’s Alcina is a wonderful example of a solution. Whitebox’s endeavor Whiteboxlab > Soundlounge is a part of their organization that “aims to create sustained and in-depth exposure for artists working in temporal mediums such as performance, sound art, and literary arts, while providing a platform for audiences to experience artist practices.” Prior to the performance I attended, Whitebox Art Center gave Schlather their main exhibition space in which to hold open rehearsals. These rehearsals were free and open to the public and lasted from September 6th-17th, giving anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, the opportunity to experience an opera in progress.
The free, open rehearsals also exposed people to the art making process, revealing the reality about the amount of work that goes into creating a performative artwork. As stated on their website, by exposing this process, Whitebox is able to “provide the opportunity to experience an artist’s practice in a meaningful way to the surrounding communities of Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and cultural tourism. It is Whitebox’s artistic vision to provide artists with sustained exposure, and create the environment for more in-depth interaction between audiences and artists’ practices. As a non-profit art space, Whitebox aims to be a space for invention. It achieves this by inviting emerging and established artists to respond to its exhibition space with interventions, performances, and developing long-term programming that allows them to develop projects and engage with audiences.”
Although performances of Alcina are over, the Whitebox will continue to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds to interact with both the process and the product of an array of performing and multidisciplinary arts. Fortunately for us, they regularly web-stream events live, which further dismantles the barriers that exist between people and art. This offers the public the unique opportunity to interact with the arts in an incredibly innovative way. It’s up to us to be receptive and responsive to experiencing old art forms anew and continue to support and occupy spaces that invite artists like R.B. Schlather to perform their magic.
Photos courtesy Whitebox Art Center’s website