There was a moment during Looking at You, a new opera by Kamala Sankaram, that sent me scrolling through the work’s libretto after the first preview at HERE on Sept. 6: Three Geeks are troubleshooting a faulty app pre-launch, against the news-cycle backdrop of a massive data-breach.
“We just didn’t know that our phones are on all the time, Alexa is on all the time,” sings one. “Our thermostats are connected to our watches and our blenders and the government.”
“That’s what the future was supposed to be like!” counters another. “The kitchen has the tea ready for Captain Picard! The bathtub has the bubbles ready for Jane Jetson.”
“I get it,” replies the first geek, echoing an aphorism common in Silicon Valley: “It’s a feature, not a bug.” She then launches into the first few verses of a trio that, on Friday night’s performance, was sung a cappella.
It seemed to make sense in the arc of Sankaram’s opera, which had relied up until this point on a small ensemble of saxophones, electronics, and piano, but was, plot-wise, reaching a breaking point. It wasn’t until music director, Samuel McCoy, rose from his perch to consult with the production’s technologists, and the performance was subsequently held, that we realized it was unplanned.
Or was it? As genuine as the game and endearing reactions from the three singers (Mikki Sodergren, Eric McKeever, and Adrienne Danrich) seemed for the minute or so that the glitch was worked out, I also wondered whether this was another feature, not a bug. When the performance resumed with Danrich’s titanium soprano, steering the trio from warm, spiritual riffs from Soderren and McKeever into an ecclesiastical apex, the break seemed all the more organic.
This, in and of itself, is a recurring theme in Sankaram’s devastatingly smart, immersive techno-noir opera (written with librettist Rob Handel). At its heart, Looking at You questions the reliability of technology. As we increasingly give up our data to digital retailers, social media platforms, and our mobile devices, how much can we trust the corporate entities to which we surrender our privacy?
Sadly, for the conspiracy theorists among us, the libretto gives no indication that this feature (or bug) was intentional. I also doubt that director Kristin Marting, who is credited with developing the work alongside Sankaram and Handel, added this in with the staging—mostly. The performance is architected to gradually fold in the audience’s own data in real time and make it part of the production. With input from Carnegie Mellon’s Privacy Economics Experiments Laboratory as well as software platform BluPanda and music stalwart Bandcamp, audience members’ public-facing social media posts gradually appear on screens. Cue the shocks of recognition as selfies and hot-take Tweets resurface, like ghosts of social media past.
But that this glitch could even be a matter of debate is indicative of how immersive the world of Looking at You becomes in just under 90 minutes. A cabaret-like setting calls to mind WeWork-style common areas, with audiences seated at cafe tables. The opening sequence, which introduces both the characters and the setting (the corporate headquarters of fictional Silicon Hills power-player Rix), is performed with all the badge-twirling religious fervor of a CTO who got into Elon Musks’s surprise SXSW talk.
Yet while the lampooning of our Mountain View culture does, at times, take on the satirical aura of a contemporary empire teetering on a precipice (McSweeney’s via Lorenzo daPonte), it’s merely the landscape for the central drama. Dorothy (Blythe Gaissert, in red pumps and Lauren Bacall hair) joins Rix as chief engineer, and feels the pressure to succeed both as a coder and (even more pressing) as a woman. Shortly after her onboarding, news breaks out that 1.7 million classified documents, revealing a surveillance program that implicates 13 governments, were leaked to the media. The whistleblower? A systems administrator named Ethan Snyder—who happens to be Dorothy’s ex.
If all of this sounds a little Snowden-esque, that’s one of the sources of inspiration for Sankaram and Handel. But rather than opt for a John Adams-style “CNN opera” based on the facts of that 2013 NSA leak, Sankaram and Handel go for allegory. Snowden’s narrative is spliced with a post-modern retelling of Casablanca. Dorothy is Ilsa, the woman caught between two worlds. Ethan is Victor Laszlo, the champion of civil liberties. And Rix (say that name out loud) is Rick—or, perhaps more accurately, the algorithms that Rix trains as a tech company are Rick. Claiming to be aloof and impartial, the algorithm becomes a partisan tool over time. Without giving away how things end, it also becomes the saving grace for Dorothy and Ethan.
This nod to 1940s noir also serves to underscore the opera’s point that, while the tools may change over time, they’re all essentially telling the (same old) story. There are touches of our time—an early aria from Dorothy retraces her last conversations with Ethan before he disappeared, but in the reverse-chronological order of text histories.
In the end, however, the fundamental rules apply: Humans will continually become victims of their own hubris, especially those who become too reliant on tools to succeed. We’ve seen this movie before. To quote Shoshana Zuboff, author of Surveillance Capitalism, “Columbus simply declared the islands as the territory of the Spanish monarchy and the pope. The first surveillance capitalists also conquered by declaration. They simply declared our private experience to be theirs for the taking.”
The success of Looking at You also relies on the strength of its performers, with no small share of the praise going to Sodergren and McKeever for tackling their sections of the aforementioned Geek Trio a cappella and with the sense that all was going according to plan. Paul An is tireless as Rix CEO Raj, and Brandon Snook brought a heldentenor-ish brawn to Ethan. Gaissert’s Dorothy, who is onstage for much of the opera, traces a trajectory that is recognizable for any woman in tech — or classical music, for that matter. Her drive for success, for the feeling of “enough-ness,” is fueled by the need to work twice as hard and twice as well because of her gender. By the end, she’s equal parts Brünnhilde and Tosca.
Admittedly, the comparisons to Wagner and Puccini seem a bit counterintuitive for an opera so ardently of our time. Opening after a summer wherein the discussion around relevance and representation in opera gained momentum due to several high-profile controversies (most notably involving race and #MeToo), Looking at You could be seen as the antidote to works that rely on cultural appropriation or glorify outdated and harmful gender norms. That its opening coincided with a Dutch musicologist Tweeting on Sunday that those who push for diversity in repertoire and representation in classical music are comparable to Nazis makes Looking at You seem even more vital.
But its success doesn’t come at the expense of the operatic tradition that predates it. It’s hard to ignore the echoes of Le nozze di Figaro and Götterdämmerung that resonate among Sankaram’s EDM impulses and sax riffs. What Looking at You suggests is that all art forms die, and are in fact in a continual state of death and regeneration. The old iterations of the art form provide fertile ground for the new.
This is an especially prescient point made in the context of tech, in which products become obsolete almost as soon as they’re launched. “Your future is the past,” the chorus of Geeks sing in the opening sequence. But, to quote author (and notable film noir screenwriter) William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You runs through Sept. 21 at HERE; here.org
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
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.
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