Off and on for the past year I have been working with Ethelyn Friend and a company of artists on an inimitable piece of art called "_____", An Opera. It is an Opera that is improvised, meaning that the music is created on the spot by pianist Gary Grundei and the ensemble of performers every night. To see the performance is to witness the creative process first hand. In addition to the improvised musical score there are sections of the show called "Windows", during which the protagonist, the Writer, literally roles a dice deciding by chance the character, the song and the quality with which it will be sung.
The Opera takes place in a small Victorian House, which allows no more than 16 viewers a night. It feels like your very own personal performance. Each audience member is given a small origami box with tiny gifts inside including a bell, a flashlight, ear plugs and a candle along with a special program. Audience members are encouraged to interact and contribute to the performance through the use of their bell and flashlight. They can ring for a moment of stillness, of mindfulness or they can shine a light on whatever they choose.
Yet, the truly breathtaking aspect of this show goes beyond its experimentation. The works greatest gift lies in the story itself, based on real events, which reveals the creative process as a healing one. The story is about an artist, a woman, the Writer, who is in the midst of writing an Opera. The audience watches while the Writer discovers her creation as it unfolds. In the vein of Jungian archetypes, the characters she imagines into being are the various aspects of herself. Theres her innocent child-self, her highest self/the all loving and all accepting divinity within, the part that is broken/ostracized/unloved/forced into shadow, the ego maniac, the often blinded and silenced consciousness who bears witness to it all.
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As the story unfolds The Writer is confronted with the traumatic memory of childhood incest. The story she is writing begins to unearth what has long been buried. At first she is in denial. She tries to "delete" this part of her story. When the characters begin to reveal the truth she tells them "not yet", in an attempt to prolong the inevitable. For a time the Writer's tactics of interruption, procrastination, and distraction are successful. However, eventually the truth can no longer be avoided. All her parts begin to coalesce, joining forces and each raising their voices in an attempt to shine light on this shadow. Through her own divine wisdom and fearlessness she opens herself to her full, unedited, unsuppressed story. She finds herself face to face with her buried suffering, looking directly into the darkest part of herself. She sees for the first time how she has become frozen and stuck, unable to move forward by the unprocessed trauma of her past. She allows the shadow to step into the light and places it in the warm and clear seeing embrace of loving-kindess. She creates space in which her shadowed trauma can be expressed and reborn.
So much of the healing process within the performance is expressed through the voice. With an ensemble or performers steeped in Roy Hart vocal training, the piece expresses the voice as the muscle of the soul and does not shy away from its darkest parts. As the shadow is revealed, the voices of the ensemble sonically convey the messy heights and depths, the lightness and darkness of what it is to be human. An "Aria of Broken Sounds" follows a song exclaiming the intensity and richness of human suffering, "Soul at the White Heat". The piece travels from gorgeous operatic and sing song tones to the shredded, powerfully raw voices that culturally we are taught to suppress and silence just like our beautiful shadows.
To say that working on this piece has changed my life is not an overstatement. Living inside of this story for over a year and performing it night after night undoubtedly has had an effect on me personally. I imagine the same can be said of my incredible collaborators, although I will not speak for them. Unknowingly at first, and then very clearly, I found myself working with my own shadow, my broken bits that I shove to the side wishing they would go away. Through this process I have begun to viscerally perceive how all my parts, the divine and the painfully ugly have a place within me.
Before each rehearsal and every show we had a routine of reading random excerpts from the works of Pema Chödrön. She reminded us nearly every day that our main challenge in being human is to come to know and befriend ourselves, all parts of ourselves without discrimination. The Roy Hart practice too, teaches of the equanimity of all sounds, the high, the low, the beautiful and the ugly. If all sounds arise from the soul then all sounds must be treated equally. Healing and personal transformation begin with awareness and integration. This is what this piece has been teaching me. And from what our audiences have shared, the piece has offered more than any of us could have ever imagined. I am forever grateful to this creative process and those who bravely led the way on this incredible journey.
While "________", An Opera is up and running and has had an entirely sold out run, we are still trying to raise funds. Our intention is to continue sharing this deeply moving work with many more audiences beyond this 3 week run. Please consider donating to the Indiegogo campaign. We only have till midnight tonight to reach our goal and we are currently only at 66%. Thank you and many blessings.
Libretto by Ethelyn Friend, Music live-improvised by Gary Grundei with Ensemble Directed by Erica Terpening-Romeo With Allison Caw Jessica Cerullo Barrett Ogden