Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

Erling_Wold's_Queer
A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.