You enter the REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CaLArts Theater) to find a mass of chairs arranged seemingly haphazard in the center of the room. Running the length on the upper half of the surrounding walls are four screens each of which has projected on it:
(1:47:01 pm) Bradass87: I’m an army intelligence analyst deployed to Eastern Baghbad
Thus you enter the world of composer Ted Hearne and Librettist Mark Doten’s The Source, the opera based on the story of Army private Bradley Manning and the largest disclosure of classified material in U.S. history.
251,287 diplomatic cables –
482,832 Army reports on the Iraqi conflict –
91,000 documents from the Afghanistan database.
The sheer volume is mind numbing. However, Hearne and Doten approach this fact not as an impediment, but as an asset. They cascade the information over their audience; a staccato cataract of emails, recordings from military operations spoken in the jargon of the armed forces, with snatches of The Daily Show, the Dixie Chicks, Stephen Hawking and the 2010 NBA finals serving as cultural mooring posts.
From the first moments one realizes how challenging a piece Hearne and Doten’s work is; challenging for both audience and performers.
Happily, the vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson and Jonathan Woody handle the stream of consciousness libretto and the winnowing score masterfully.
The performers are placed at various points in the thick of the audience, achieving an intimacy with them that facilitates their soldering to the material.
On the four large screens, the images are in a constant state of flux, a continual display of diverse faces; young, old, male, female a potpourri of ethnic personas all of whom seem to be focusing their eyes intensely downward on something placed before them, out of the audience’s sight lines. Their gazing downwards on the audience imposes the sense of exposure, that there is no place we can hide.
We hear amid the clipped and tumultuous libretto Manning’s chat log with Adrian Lamo; an online acquaintance who would betray him to U.S. Army Counterintelligence:
I encrypt as much as I can.
I zerofilled the original.
I don’t want to be a part.
I wish I could explain the pain
It’s beautiful and horrifying
If you had free reign, what would you do?
Hearne’s composition is itself “beautiful and horrifying,” assaultive and majestic with its own challenge reverberating “What would you do?”
Doten’s libretto, with snatches from The Bachelorette and Larry King serving as familiar mileposts, exposing events that have gone through the transfiguration of time’s passing to become “history”; again leaving us feeling vulnerable, for from history there is no refuge to be sought.
Adding a sense of foreboding is that all the constantly shifting faces, to varying degrees, reveal the tautness about the unblinking eyes and tight lips denoting a suppression of emotions.
Some watch in grim determination straining to suppress whatever emotional impulse first grips them.
Others noticeably cringe.
There is a passing moment of foreshadowing in the person of a middle-aged woman with black rimmed glasses. You briefly glimpse in the lens’ reflection the twisting of flames and bellowing of explosions, alluding to the violence in what is viewed.
With The Source, LA Opera Off Grand and the Beth Morrison Projects (BMP) fulfill their mandates to bring new and innovative works to Los Angeles audiences and to encourage the artists who create them to “push boundaries.”
Fish obtains great effect through the straightforward and uncluttered approach he’s taken with this work. The video design, by Fish and Jim Findlay succeeds in serving as the conduit between the piece and the audience and is both evocatively and intelligently crafted; as when the four screens show at one point a black and white image of Julian Assange, editor-in- chief of WikiLeaks, who, with his media partners, released sections from Manning’s volumes of reports and dispatches.
The image is one that is extremely out of focus.
Out of focus because we don’t yet know how we should see this man.
Fish, wisely does not attempt to decode or spoon feed the information erupting from the work, nor facilitates it’s digestion by his audience, he merely allows it to surge forth over them in the fullness of all its vigor. Even if they do not grasp the more nuanced qualities of the work, Fish assures that his audience is aware that they are in the grip of some disquieting undertow threatening to drag them beneath the surface, the emotional context of which is revealed at the end of the piece.
In May of 2010 Private Manning was arrested with the government bringing 22 charges against him.
By 2013 when the last of the guilty verdicts were handed down Manning, who earlier had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, had already set off on the journey towards her new self and is now serving her 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning.
Also in 2010, the Swedish government requested Britain to extradite Julian Assange on accusations of rape. Claiming the charges were false, Assange voiced concerns that once in Swedish hands he would be extradited to the USA to face prosecution for “The Great Leak.”
In August of 2012, his appeals exhausted, Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which he has remained within the confines of ever since.
The 500,000 plus documents supplied by Manning to Wikileaks have been blamed for the deaths of American undercover operators abroad and praised for being one of the catalysts for the Arab Spring.
Depending on your political leanings, Manning is either a traitor to his country or cut of the same cloth as the Tiananmen Square Man. The events on which this opera is based though moving inevitably into the realm of “history,” are still too near, too fresh, to be stamped yet by history’s verdict.
The Source succeeds as opera and art. It also succeeds in the potency of its presentation by instilling in the audience a sense of the chaos which is contained in the wounded soul of a confused and troubled youth, and the more choking chaos of a powerful nation in conflict with others and itself.
At the work’s conclusion, the audience is faced with what has come to be known as “The Collateral Murder Video,” perhaps the most unsettling disclosure by Manning. And it was this video, which resembles nothing so much as a low-tech video game, that the “faces” were watching while being filmed.
Viewing it, the audience is assailed by a clinical dialogue between those serving our nation’s government, as they calculate how to conduct a slaughter in order to reap the highest yield. And somewhere the painful realization glows dimly into awareness, that Chelsea Manning was not the “source” of this visual indictment of humanity.
We all were.
* * *
The REDCAT is certainly one of the most interesting and dynamic venues in Los Angeles.
ROY AND EDNA DISNEY/CALARTS THEATER (REDCAT) is located
THE WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL COMPLEX
631 WEST 2ND STREET
LOS ANGELES, CA 90012
Among the upcoming performances they have scheduled are:
Choreographer Pat Graney’s Girl Gods which promises to “reveal the emotional underbelly of the female experience” in a spectacle of movement and physical language.
Calling Out of Context, a shared concert between Rhys Chatham, a primary proponent of drone music a minimalist musical form employing tone-clusters of repetitive sounds and notes, and the East Coast alt-punk band Priests,presented as part of The Broad music series which seeks to pair performers from the extreme fringes with unique artistic perspectives.
And Notes of a Native Song, a collaboration between Heidi Rodewald and Tony award winning writer and composer Stew paying homage to the legacy of activist author James Baldwin.
For a full listing of events and performances from film-video presentations of Xu Haofeng’s The Final Master to the avant-garde musical quartet gnarwhallaby go to Redcat.org.
**NOTE: Pictured in Featured Image, Vocalist Isaiah Robinson (Photo by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)**