Greyson finds grandeur in video opera


TORONTO STAR Nov. 22, 2003

Of the dozen different ways to describe Fig Trees, the music and video installation at Oakville Galleries, the simplest works best: It has the feel of greatness.

It’s there in the sumptuous weave of David Wall’s musical score, where 14th-century polyphony meets 21st-century compositional techniques.

Arias soar even as they are confined to the intimacy of video performance and to a speaker system or CD players.

The music melts into your head.

It’s there in film director John Greyson’s adroitly arranged scenes played out on monitors and screens throughout a number of rooms in two buildings.

Walk through it any which way, change the order of scenes and Fig Trees grows all around you, a grove of technology.

It’s there in the thematic material the collaborators worked with, notably in the defiant and nearly deadly four-year strike by South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, who provoked 39 pharmaceutical companies to withdraw a lawsuit intended to block South Africa from importing cheaper generic versions of essential AIDS drugs.

Having ended his protest, Achmat, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), found his way to a fig orchard to take his first dose, hence the title.

It’s there in the way all these elements and so many others are woven together so seamlessly you aren’t mindful of the various factors.

More than anything, it’s there in the very soul of the piece.

And it’s no stretch to talk about soul, even with all the technology. In fact, the soul in Fig Trees should be entirely familiar for anyone with even a passing interest in opera, where no heart is ever big enough.

Fig Trees may be the first chamber opera that works on the grand operatic scale by suggesting something heroic in intimate terms — and the first to make 21st-century technology work for it.

In its first scene, Achmat (Van Abrahams) tries to gives his keynote speech to the delegates at the 2002 AIDS conference in Barcelona, via satellite

Too ill to travel, he has to rely on a video link that keeps breaking down, as does the simultaneous Simulang-Google translation of his words.

Weaving together this fusillade of techno glitches — the truncated words, the missed sentences, Achmat’s puppet-like appearance on the monitor, the original staggering video transmission — Greyson creates a sort of anti-music video, where everything that should run smoothly doesn’t.

It’s a dazzling close-up of Achmat’s frustration that’s echoed achingly through Wall’s music.

"John and I were dedicated from the outset to a piece that was `beautiful’ in the most conservative sense," Wall tells me in an e-mail.

"I am thoroughly convinced that opera should be tonal. There’s something intrinsic to the human voice that makes 20th-century serial and atonal operas sound hopelessly dated and strained.

"I also thought it would be mean to subject gallery workers to endless loops of ear-crunching dissonance.

"I wanted to reject the `operatic’ and Romantic model, which represents history as a chain of singular heroes who shape the world’s destiny. The use of interlocking, even libretto-obscuring ensembles mirrors, in my opinion, the true, multi-faceted nature of political change.

"Also, my favourite operatic moments are always the quartets, sextets, etc. where comprehensibility is sacrificed for sheer wash of beautiful sound."

The reason video, the most intimate of all visual media, integrates so well with opera, the most over-the-top musical form, lies in their mutual ability to make sense beyond words.

"At the theatre we see and hear what has been said, thought and done by various people elsewhere," wrote William Hazlitt, the influential 19th-century British essayist.

"At the opera we see and hear what was never said or done anywhere but at the opera."

In his time, Hazlitt meant larger-than-life feelings, events and characters. But the media intensity of the 21st century has made the intimate available on the global scale.

The kind of nation-stirring notions made larger-than-life in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov have yielded to worldwide movements and protests based on life-size personal issues such as AIDS, the environment or gay and minority rights.

To Greyson, Achmat’s story was an opera waiting to happen. Visiting the activist in Cape Town over a number of years "and watching him emerge as a leader," says Greyson, "I started teasing him one day about this martyr thing. The press were going crazy over it. `Someone will write an opera about him,’ I told him. There were all those large questions of martyrdom and the issues of his story.

"I’m not the biggest opera queen in the world. But with (Fig Trees) the tone generally falls with the romantic-tragic tradition — the noble suffering about a good cause. We just wanted to turn the story on its head."

This is where Gertrude Stein enters the story, or at least her "opera to be sung" Four Saints In Three Acts, written with American composer Virgil Thomson, which had its premiere in Hartford, Conn., on Feb.8, 1934.

Both Greyson and Wall had been interested in the opera for some time, "not so much as an opera in its own right, but more as a peculiar and legendary moment in queer, avant-garde and new music history," says Marnie Fleming, Fig Trees‘ curator.

(Oakville Galleries is home to one of Janet Cardiff’s earliest sound walks. There’s no reason why Fig Trees, on to Jan.25, won’t eventually have the same international reach.)

Four Saints, with its all-black cast, with everyone dressed in cellophane, and its libretto an utter jumble of nonsensical sounds, was precisely the kind of piece breaking the rules being ignored by Greyson and Wall in Fig Trees.

For Greyson, a fantasy involving Stein — and Cellophane, a fictional Gertrude Stein opera set in Oakville — provided the right counterpoint to Achmat’s heroics.

"Running through my work has always been this ambivalence toward realism," Greyson says. To say the least. His 1993 film, Zero Patience — the direct precursor of Fig Trees — was a musical about the arrival of AIDS in North America.

Stein’s love of wordplay, intelligent nonsense and pushing the envelope to see who’d open it, also played into Greyson’s imagination, "which tends to involve a fair amount of game-playing with words and image," says Wall.

"He loves interweaving layers and codes into his films and we approached the writing/composing of Fig Trees in this way."

Fig Trees even has its own palindrome room, where every word can be read or sung forward or backward.

Here life goes into video reverse and the singers melt into one another.

"On the stage, actors can’t sing backwards no matter how hard they try," says Greyson.

"The main thing with Fig Trees is finding new ways to make people see things anew."

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