Last Friday, the usually vacant staircase outside of Gallery 4 was activated, perhaps for the first time ever, by Juliana Snapper’s work in progress “Opera Listens to You”. It was the first ever performance of the piece and I was lucky enough to witness the rehearsal process of Juliana Snapper and the Twin Cities vocal ensemble Deviated Septet and observe the work’s development. I even had the privilege of being the test subject. The ensemble started knowing that they were to listen to the subject’s feelings and respond to them musically. In its fledgling stages, the chorus oscillated between responding to people through formal song structure that mutated based on mood, and a more abstract and guttural response. Through pragmatic experimentation, they eventually chose the latter and after a thorough listening session, the Operatic chorus would vocally reflect the subject’s feelings and problems, in what was for many, a moment of catharsis.
The chorus empathized not only sonically, but also physically. Members of the chorus were united beneath an airy, white parachute, a costume choice that evoked a less structured version of Merce Cunningham’s parachute dresses. The parachute-clad ensemble literally opened its arms to the participant, bending to let him/her into the center of the parachute where s/he was then enveloped by the walls that materialized as the chorus raised all 14 of its arms. This gesture created a visual and sonic barrier between the subject and the rest of the audience so that as the subject shared his/her/their thoughts and feelings with Opera, audience members could barely decipher the subject’s words. Indeed, we were not entirely sure whether or not we were supposed to hear the person’s musings, which created an intriguing voyeuristic tension. After the listening session was through, the chorus morphed to physically embody the subject’s feelings. Their theatrical gestures took on a sculptural quality when performed underneath the white parachute. The performance was at once able to blur the line between sculpture and performance as well as private and public.
But these underlying tensions are only the technical aspects of what made the piece so compelling. I, for one, was touched by the piece’s sincerity and in admiration of the willingness of the subjects and the ensemble to make themselves vulnerable. Everyone involved was pure in intent and galvanized by the opportunity to create. At times, the interaction between the ensemble and the participant seemed to verge on the spiritual. The wonderful acoustics in the space created overtones, which evoked the acoustics of a place of worship, and the intense emotional reactions, ranging from laughter to tears, imbued the space with a kind of mysticism. These tenuous moments of transcendence were what gave the piece its true power.
At one point, after what appeared to be two particularly emotional sessions, the ensemble proposed a listening and vocalizing exercise with audience members. In an ethereal sweep of swooshing white parachute, the human sculpture floated down the steps and perched themselves at the bottom. Juliana introduced us to an exercise called “Teach Yourself to Fly” by the musician and composer Pauline Oliveros. In this exercise, everyone closes their eyes, finds their breath’s natural rhythm, and lets out a sustained note of their choosing, for the duration of their choosing. We sat on the stairs, breathing out of sync together, sometimes singing, sometimes listening, and slowly, we made music. It was void of traditional rhythmic structure, atonal and amorphous. And that is why it was so beautiful. We were able to listen and to sing however we felt like and, for one suspended moment, this united us. As the noise slowly tapered off, I opened my eyes feeling refreshed and centered. My boss leaned over and whispered to me, “I think we need to do more therapeutic art”. And as usual, she’s right.
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