OperaCabal: The Slumber Thief
In its third incarnation, the Opera Cabal Performing Arts Association’s OperaSHOP brings together the duo of toy pianist/composer Phyllis Chen and video artist/sound designer Robert Dietz with dramaturg Joseph Cermatori for "The Slumber Thief." The goal of the incubation residency is to bring artists from outside opera together to probe the boundaries of the genre. "The Slumber Thief" may be the most successful piece yet commissioned by Opera Cabal, both in light of that goal and on its own merits.
The "set" for the piece comprises a projection screen, a prop table, three small "bureau drawers" set on end like doors and Chen’s toy piano, tricked out with a pinball-like ramp and a series of magnets. At the beginning of each of the three sections, Chen releases a Baoding -- a Chinese chime ball painted to resemble a bloodshot eyeball -- down the ramp and into the audience, preparatory to retrieving both it and one of the drawers.
Inside each drawer is a diorama representing different stages of sleep or sleeplessness. Using both her costumed hands and magnets from beneath the miniature sets, Chen manipulates "eye" through a pastiche of fairytales, a nightmarish dissection of a shapeless body and ultimately an avalanche of chemical and whimsical sleep aids as the action within the "drawer" is projected on to the screen from one of two small cameras.
Dietz spends the performance camped out behind a series of effects, pedals and a laptop connected to a projector, which casts stark, black-and-white silhouettes in between dioramic scenes. Chen’s hauntingly chipper compositions for toy piano and hand-cranked music box primarily serve as interstitial lullabies.
During the more narrative portions of the piece, the soundtrack is primarily manipulated sounds of the natural, social, and built environment-bird song, traffic, indistinct whispers and the sharp crack of metal on wood, again evoking a pinball machine, as Chen puts the "main character" through its paces.
Other than these susurrations and Chen’s heavily modified narration toward the end of the piece, voice plays no role in "The Slumber Thief," a daring answer indeed to the question: What is opera? During a post-show Q &A, Majel Connery, Opera Cabal’s Executive Director and producer, noted that the nature of the residency always invites the possibility that a commissioned piece will fail to be opera. Some questions, most centering around the fact that voice is all but absent here, seemed to indicate that this moment might have arrived for some.
But Chen’s response to such challenges was enlightening. She admitted that here she is interested primarily in the voice as sound, rather than as a tool for delivering narrative information. Instead, the work of world building and storytelling falls to the visuals -- lines of fairy tale text on inch-high books, camera angles borrowed from B horror movies and Chen herself, the puppeteer, in plain sight.
It’s an inversion of the mindset of the opera aficionado who would just as soon be transported by voice alone, never mind the larger-than-life spectacle and supertitles, leaving any meaning beyond the manipulation of affect a complete mystery. If the piece exists at the very margins of the medium, it’s not the first incarnation of opera to do so.
In the Q& A, Dietz and Chen also acknowledged the challenges inherent in the found-object nature of the piece, which represents a departure from their technology-focused recent works. Several audience members responded strongly to the suggestion that they might, in future, present the piece as a film, rather than live. Given that the piece, in Chen’s words, fundamentally references childhood and the fluid way in which our experience of memory changes as time passes, it seems crucial that the audience see all the moving parts.
OperaSHOP’s "The Slumber Thief" runs through Nov. 3 at The University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Performing Arts at 60th and Drexel, and at the University of Chicago’s Fulton Hall, 5845 S. Ellis Ave. For info or tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.