BAM Howard Gilman Opera House,
June 6, 2019
Words: Brin Solomon
Images: Richard Termine
The lights go down. A young black man sits on the lip of the stage. A rich wash of sound fills the space, fragments of mournful Italian lyrics weaving in and out of sustained drones like the centuries-prolonged reverb of a Renaissance madrigal. On the scrim hiding the rest of the stage from view, splotches of white light emerge from the darkness. Gradually, they resolve into an image: Two men, one chained naked in an inverted Christ-like posture, the other standing by in leather pants, his hand causally but assertively gripping the first man’s cock.
Mapplethorpe grouped many of his photos into his so-called X, Y, and Z portfolios, and Triptych loosely follows this division. The X portfolio contains BDSM scenes, the Y portfolio flowers, and the Z portfolio nudes and portraits of black men. Triptych pairs the first with playfully erotic lyrics full of surreal images of flowers blooming at the moon, the second with excerpts from a 1990 obscenity trial concerning Mapplethorpe’s works. The third section is by far the longest, with texts ranging from imagined dialogues between Mapplethorpe’s subjects to poetry critiquing Mapplethorpe by Hemphill (1957–95), a black gay writer and activist.
In keeping with the rigorous formality of Mapplethorpe’s works, the staging is deliberately spare. The performers – the ensemble Roomful of Teeth is joined by soloists Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson as well as a nine-person chamber orchestra, all conducted by Brad Wells – wear either all black or all white, and the action is controlled by flat curtains and scrims that rise and fall to reveal and hide various parts of the stage. (The sets and costumes are both by Carlos Soto.) Most of the light sources (designed by Yuki Nakase) are harsh, stark whites, and they’re thrown on the performers in arresting angles that bring out unexpected contours on their bodies and faces.
All these elements come together to produce striking tableaux, like the sequence in the Z section that started with the performers silhouetted far upstage by a dazzling backdrop. Over Dessner’s thunderous, irregular groove, the vocalists sing a tumult of interweaving lines, the only clearly audible text (“When you shoot a black body…”) popping to the foreground again and again. One by one, the singers stepped forward into bands of light streaming in from each side, culminating in a stage picture with the cold, implacable fury of baleful Renaissance statuary. Other moments were more tender, as when Moran stepped in front of the foremost scrim to deliver a fragmentary spiritual, a vision of otherworldly grace.
Not everything came together so well. The Z section was clearly intended to critique, or at least complicate, Mapplethorpe’s relationship to black bodies, but too much of the text stayed in the realm of the abstract and imagistic for the argument to come across. While the section does draw from the words of Hemphill, there’s nothing in Triptych that’s as direct as the quote that’s relegated to his printed bio: “What is insulting and endangering to Black men is Mapplethorpe’s conscious determination that the faces, the heads, and by extension, the minds and experiences of some of his Black subjects are not as important as close-up shots of their cocks.” Without that kind of forceful clarity, the Z section meandered, and its arguments lacked focus.
Some of this lack of coherence may have been intentional. A program note from Christopher Myers, one of the dramaturgs, expands on the different ways one can interpret Mapplethorpe’s work, and suggests that Triptych is an attempt to capture all of those divergent possibilities. That may be the creators’ intent, but the result is a piece that feels afraid to commit to anything, which doesn’t make for a satisfying whole.
That’s a pity, because where Triptych works, it works. I freely admit that I am not well versed in visual art; I approach Mapplethorpe’s photos as an intuitive naïf, not a learned analyst. But for me, his BDSM portraits have an aching holiness to them, an overwhelming mixture of the animal yearning for connection, the trust and intimacy inherent in voluntary submission, and the knowledge that many of the depicted men would be dead from AIDS within a decade in a crisis they could not see coming — and the X section of Triptych captures all of that in music, lyric, staging, and light.
The finale is also strong. During a setting of Hemphill’s “American Wedding” that moves slowly from Robinson’s captivating solo voice to the richness of the full choir, all the curtains fly out to reveal the bare back wall of the theatre. A row of lights high on the wall and facing the audience warms slowly from dull orange to brilliant white, bright enough to obliterate the projected text. The music swells with the words, full of defiance, determination, and desire, and then it shrinks, abruptly, to a few voices on an ambiguous chord. The ’70s dream of gay liberation still remains unfinished.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.