Let’s begin bold: There surely will be no student undertaking of an operatic or music-theater work more significant than the new production of Robert Ashley’s 1999 opera Dust that the College of Performing Arts at the New School unveiled on February 2 in the school’s Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall.
Let’s take it a step further: There likely will be few if any fully professional operatic or music-theater productions that will rival this one for significance, both in its here-and-now reality and its promise for future restorations and revelations.
It’s also, quite simply, an extraordinary experience conveyed with complete conviction. As a longtime devotee of Ashley’s oeuvre, I was overjoyed not only to see Dust inhabited and reimagined by new performers and theater artists, but also to witness firsthand confirmation that the task could be undertaken convincingly.
This is more significant than it might seem. Ashley fashioned an utterly distinctive brand of authentically American opera, saturated in heady philosophy, vernacular speech, and pop-music idioms – virtually all of it tailored for performance by himself and his company of close associates. Thankfully, we have video of Ashley’s original ensemble performing several of his key works, including Dust.
Still, repeatability is fundamental to canonicity; Ashley’s operas deserve to live on, but in order to do so, they have to be re-envisioned to accommodate new performers and, in a sense, new perspectives. This process has been underway for some time now, with new performers mounting independent versions of Perfect Lives, Automatic Writing, and That Morning Thing in 2011, and with the performance by Varispeed of Ashley’s final opera, Crash, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014. Like those precedents, this academic undertaking was a welcome and necessary development.
Built around the remembrances of homeless park dwellers – five vocal roles, a silent role, and an unseen companion – Dust is among Ashley’s strongest and most sublime achievements: a gorgeous, humane, and unfailingly decent sequence of five long monologues more spoken than sung, a brief and chaotic entanglement, and five pop-song redolent epilogues.
The student performers tasked with inhabiting the vocal roles had their work cut out for them. Try to imagine being Mario Diaz-Moresco, who took up Ashley’s own central role (“I Live in the Park”), or Julia Meadows, tasked with portraying “Lucille” under the watch of the original Lucille, Joan La Barbara, who served as the musical director for this revival. And each of the performers featured in Thursday’s premiere (two of whom cede their spots to other performers in repeat performances) handled their duties artfully and affectingly.
A performer’s age inevitably has some bearing on how a character in an opera can come across to an audience, here no less than with Mozart’s Almaviva or Verdi’s Falstaff. But La Barbara and William Gustafson, the producer and stage director, clearly coached their players well; if Diaz-Moresco couldn’t quite convey wizened gravitas, he compensated with incantatory focus.
Likewise, I missed the gravity of aged regret Thomas Buckner brought to his portrayal of “The Rug” in Ashley’s company, yet Alexander Greenzeig’s performance here conveyed the requisite longing elegantly enough. Marisa Karchin was winsome and perky as “Shirley Temple,” a role created by the ineffably bubbly Jacqueline Humbert. Allison Gish actually found fresh shades of self-flagellating nuance in the role of “Green Pants,” a part originally performed by Ashley’s son, Sam Ashley. (The gender switch subtly swayed the narrative, but not destructively.) And Meadows was breathtaking, her raucous nihilism and cheeky profanity extending to a physical presence rare in an Ashley staging.
That physicality was enhanced by an economical yet ingenious staging that called upon the performers to stand up, microphones in hand, and move around their small patches of stage. White umbrellas hung overhead; surrounding the performers were placards emblazoned with pleas for assistance all too familiar from similar signs on New York City’s sidewalks and subways. Those suspended surfaces doubled as screens for projected photographs and live video manipulated by scenographer Troy Hourie, embedded upstage in the silent role of “Leonard.”
Offstage, keyboardist Jack Gruber offered lounge-jazz filigree worthy of Ashley’s close collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny. David Van Tieghem, a featured performer in Ashley’s landmark 1983 video opera Perfect Lives, managed sound design with Emily Auciello, in consultation with one more longtime Ashley cohort, Tom Hamilton.
Fully 18 months in the making, this new Dust was a striking success for all involved. But more, it proved anew that Ashley’s works, however bespoke and idiosyncratic they might once have seemed, not only can be preserved, produced, tweaked, and reimagined, but should be, and must be.
Dust repeats on Feb. 3 and 4 at The New School; all performances are sold out.