by Jon Santiago
If a performance stays with you, it's hit the mark. And if something about a show is still bugging you days later, you need to pay attention.
For me, this is true about Kepler and especially true about The Animals and Children Took to The Streets.
Disclaimer: I like quirky. Not mean-spirited, wacko-sociopathic. Just honest, inquisitive, skewed, in-your-face quirky.
Disclaimer 2: I want an opera to make me weep. Heartstring-thrummed waterworks or joyful sniffling. Even a single glistening tear perched at the eyelid will do. Salty, cathartic cleansing is one reason we keep going back to old-fashioned favorites like Aida, Tosca, La Bohème, Rigoletto. The human voice has that power: to move us to tears. At the opera, I want that experience. I want to hear those celestial voices.
Having made those disclaimers, here's what happened.
I went to Animals not knowing what to expect and came away a believer.
I went to Kepler a (Philip Glass) believer and came away an agnostic.
One thing I noticed right off the bat about Animals is that much of the play is — wait for it — in verse. Rhyming verse! This narrative poetry factor is so sneaky, you get no points deducted for missing how Animals' playwright Suzanne Andrade slipped poetry into your prosaic day, right under your nose. You were too busy laughing.
Now, the great thing about poetry is that its rhythms and tone immediately communicate that something special is happening. Cue that poetic voice and we've moved outside the ordinary, stepped right into a pile of race-memory resonances that may well be hard-wired into the human soul. This works perfectly for Animals' fractured fairy-tale conceit and makes the audience want to follow the gumdrops all the way home.
When a poet (or a jester) speaks, we get ready for anything. We know we're going on a journey. And once you're on that road, you start to notice some familiar landmarks, or you're reminded of them. Animals made me reach for T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...
Sounds like just another day at Bayou Mansions. Animals could have been the twisted sister to Eliot's The Waste Land, only, you know, hilarious.
I'm going to miss those wacky little Animals. But Kepler? Not so much.
Right after Kepler, I tweeted this quick take: "Kepler is restrained, elliptical, doesn't quite reach orbital speed." It was all those things. But it wasn't an opera. Since the libretto consists of quotes on various topics from different sources (including the man himself), Kepler has no discernible dramatic arc. Perhaps that's a niggling criticism. Point is, that perceived flaw has been niggling me.
We might also point out Kepler's dramatized relationship with his Creator. If Kepler's piety was genuine you'd hardly know it from this libretto. He comes off as someone who'd willingly kneel to no one. His relationship with the deity smells a little competitive, like Kepler was miffed that God had managed to conceal His secrets from the scientist's penetrating gaze. There's this defeatist quote from Kepler himself: "Without perfect knowledge life is dead." Whoa! Drama, much? One of Kepler's own self-assessments runs “This man has completely the nature of a dog.”
Conclusion: The Kepler in Kepler is an annoying, miserable egotist.
But what really disappointed me about Kepler is that it never moved me. I never shed a tear. A little eye irritation maybe, but I wrote that off to allergies.
The opera Kepler sidelined at least one selling point of opera: the human voice. Kepler's big ideas, such as they were, emerged in the orchestra pit, and simply hovered over it. The splendid vocal talents onstage were mostly constrained to conveying ideas and facts — material that's about as emotive as lecture notes. As a result, they had few chances to shine. That bugged me, too.
An older couple in the lobby during Kepler's intermission had this to say.
She: I hope people don't walk out.
He: Some will. Some will.
[She takes a long gulp of her white wine, glances around, shakes her head]
She: What I don't do for you, only god knows!
At the final curtain, a rather tepid shower of applause grew into a roaring ovation. But I wasn't sold, and the thought crossed my mind: this ovation was out of respect for Glass' other achievements, not out of gratitude for what we'd sat through that night.
I'm grateful Spoleto offered us the American premiere of this work in English translation even if I don't foresee having to revisit it.
I will, however, always recognize a debt to Martina Winkel, Kepler's librettist, for finally creating an opera that featured one of my favorite words, "icosahedron."
Well done, Ms. Winkel.