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Bow on Top

Maya Beiser tackles four millenniums’ worth of female mistreatment in the “cello opera” Elsewhere.

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The scorchingly inventive cellist Maya Beiser has spent years cultivating her instrument’s theatrical flair, surrounding it with video, commissioning narrative pieces, and crafting thematic recordings. Now she has presented her instrument with a genre of its own, the cello opera. Elsewhere, a 70-minute small-scale extravaganza involving dancers, a singer, electronics, video projections, an X-Acto knife, and plenty of clear plastic sheeting, had its New York premiere at BAM’s new Fisher theater recently, and while I’ve never seen anything quite like it, novelty isn’t the whole story. Hybrid genres come into being as regularly as dubious new ice cream flavors, and the cello opera could easily melt away in a puddle of indifference. I’d be happy, though, if it settled in. The cello is a natural-born diva: It embraces the entire range, and much of the expressive variety, of the human voice. It can sing, growl, coo, moan, shout, and stutter, and when Beiser plays, the relationship between musician and instrument has a dramatic intensity that borders on the erotic.

Elsewhere, directed by Robert Woodruff, is a sumptuously grim and not entirely successful work, whose topic is the mistreatment of women everywhere. It juxtaposes Henri Michaux’s “I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off Country,” a surreal poem about a female tribe struggling to survive in a postapocalyptic land, with a monologue for Lot’s wife by Erin Cressida Wilson. All that fearsome earnestness becomes hard to take, particularly because the action is confined to a strip of stage behind a clear plastic scrim. In that claustrophobic catwalk, a row of female dancers strip, flop, struggle, and wriggle on metal cots, and it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to be aroused or appalled or both.

Conflating thousands of years of gendered suffering into an hour-long show loads Elsewhere down in mythic pretense. One woman’s story can stand in for many others; two cancel each other out. Rather than creating a new work from scratch, Beiser welded one piece by Eve Beglarian to another by Missy Mazzoli, with an entr’acte by Michael Gordon, making three distinct composers fuse into a Frankenstein-ian creature of buzzing drones and furious chorales. When, in the final act, Helga Davis emerges to sing the role of Lot’s wife, she is upstaged by the voiceless cello.

What saves Elsewhere is Beiser’s flair. Her taste runs to muscular minimalism, which she performs with a fierce, rocky tone, like the sound of a desert sunset. At times, she and the computer together build up an ecstatic chorus. At others, a processor roughens her cello into a howling guitar. Toward the end, she abandons the instrument altogether, escapes from her plastic prison by slicing open the screen, and grabs the sleek electric cello that’s waiting on the other side. She has outgrown the limitations of wood and varnish; electricity is freedom.

It’s hard to know what chance this flawed but exciting instrumental video opera has to launch a fresh tradition. Old templates endure long after the reason for their existence has shifted, and they take up a lot of real estate. A kid with a laptop and a good set of speakers can drown out a symphony orchestra, and opera houses have only grudgingly begun to absorb film, television, digital art, electronic sounds, and microphone-assisted singing. Yet those antique genres are bound to tenacious institutions, and so composers keep writing in them.

Still, the Establishment does occasionally make room for a new genre. As the founding cellist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Beiser helped launch one of the few genuinely new forms in contemporary music: the mixed electric chamber ensemble. Video has staked out turf in the concert hall: No less an eminence than Thomas Adès (whose opera The Tempest opens at the Met on October 23) now incorporates digital projections in his concert works. And the state of the art in multimedia cello music is Up-Close by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, in which the cellist Sol Gabetta seems to dream up her onscreen alter ego, an older woman wandering through northern woods. That piece has yet to get its American premiere, but a three-minute trailer on the composer’s website makes it clear that Elsewhere already has the asset every artistic innovation needs if it’s going to prosper: competition.

Elsewhere
Maya Beiser.
Brooklyn Academy of Music.


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