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Director Ong Keng Sen says opera Tree of Codes is no arty remix

A Universal Call

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Welcome to almost-Spoleto-season, Charleston. We're expanding our pre-season coverage of Spoleto shows this year, giving you a taste of shows well in advance — both so you can snag tickets, and also just so you can deep dive into your own research about each performance. We're starting off with one of this year's operas — a heady presentation based (sort of ... not really, we'll let you decide) on a book of the same name, and making its U.S. premiere in Charleston. Enjoy.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer of whimsy. Those who adore him say his whimsy is a fine-crafted medium, a clarion call behind which all logophiles will rally — beneath his fantastical renderings, we find the truth.

Those who reject Foer's creative interpretations of serious events — the Holocaust, 9/11 — think his whimsy is sachharine stuff posing as serious work — he's a cocky wordsmith too big for his britches.

Whether you find his writing endearing or unremarkable, Foer's work has served as quite the inspiration for other art forms. Tree of Codes, an opera making its U.S. premiere at Spoleto Festival USA 2018, draws from Foer's 2010 novel of the same name (there's also a Wayne McGregor ballet of the same name, with the same Foer fodder). Though describing Tree of Codes as a novel may not be entirely accurate.

"The whole book is an entire work of art," says Tree of Codes director Ong Keng Sen. "If you know its history, he [Foer] cuts through the book and in that way opens up negative and positive spaces ... he reconsiders the book as a scuplture, a kind of distillation. It's very meditative in a strange way."

According to a 2010 Guardian review of Foer's Tree of Codes, the writer's "all-time favorite book is Bruno Schulz's Cinnamon Shops, retitled The Street Of Crocodiles when it was translated into English 47 years ago." Rearrange the words of The Street of Crocodiles and you have a strange riddle, a Tree of Codes.

A derivation, rooted in love. But what do you call a derivation of a derivation? Ong says that at first, he was a little skeptical about approaching this already, ostensibly, fully formed piece of art. "When I actually read it," says Ong, "It brought me closer to the issues. I think that art about art has become extremely popular in the last decade or last two decades; books about books, films about films, performances about performances. That's why my initial skepticism was actually kind of erased when I read the book. I began to see this is not art about art."

Within its cut out pages Foer has birthed, from Schulz's original syntax, new, stand-alone phrases: "August painted the air with a mop. Hours pass in coughs"; "in the depth of the grayness, weeks passed like boats waiting to sail into the starless dawn"; "the gale seemed to explode dead colours onto the unkempt sky." Think Tom Phillips' A Humument — the OG book about a book, so to speak, with a foundation of a pre-1900 Victorian book, A Human Document, treated with Phillips' painting, collage, and cut-out techniques becoming something else entirely, A Humument.

Like Foer and Phillips, Ong has been able to interpret a novel in an entirely different way, this time through music. By crafting a "musical landscape," Ong is birthing his own stand-alone moments. "'How do we find the human voice and the life force in the opera?' that is in a way a kind of challenge. I have to visualize the musical landscape whereby audiences would, I suppose, be emotionally touched by visuals to arrive at some kind of emotional core. Or else it will always be an arty remix."

In Ong's Tree of Codes, if there were to be a defined story arc, it may center on a quest. Ong says that composer Liza Lim "implants in the work a search by a boy for his father which gives us some kind of emotional core and entry. That gives me a possibility of making something on stage."

As in all of Foer's work, in Tree of Codes there is a reference to pre-WWII Europe, to life in Jewish cities before the Holocaust. His inspiration, Schulz, was murdered by the Nazis, and hundreds of his paintings, drawings, and manuscripts were in turn lost forever. Foer's Tree of Codes could be seen as a sort of homage to Schulz, to what he could have become. Ong's production could be seen as an homage to what, after all is said and done, we can find beneath the rubble.

"There's a garden of life which the boy enters," says Ong. "A monument which some could read as a monument of life lost, culture disappeared. In Jewish cities you find memorials. Memorials to life and the way of life that the city has lost forever. We've taken abstract meaning, creating a garden where a boy enters, and we call it a garden but there's no real vegetation. It's a special space in Liza's opera. We feel the sense of another world."

Two singers take on multiple roles in the production, including the role of a boy on a quest and a woman who serves as a guardian of the special space. "She brings him on this coming of age ritual in a way," says Ong. In the "spirit of distillation" Ong says there's no chorus on stage, just the voices of his two singers. A choreographer also appears, dressing the characters as they move, not in full clothing, just in different pieces, different materials coming together on the body of the singer.

"Jonathan [Foer] did a literary cut out which was a sculpture and Liza did a kind of musical cut out from those two books, which is a sound sculpture in a way," says Ong. Ong never actually spoke with Foer about Tree of Codes the book, or the opera, saying, "It's important to keep some kind of distance, you want an aerial oerview. At the end the concentration is on music."

Ong studied Foer a bit, though, watching YouTube interviews with the author. "The whole question of what is Tree of Codes... it's a search for something ephemeral," says Ong. "The meaning of life... where is this tree of codes? Why is it? Jonathan talks about this tree of codes and how in a way it's always been there. Something that is shining...something that has been with us all this time but we've never realized it."

Tree of Codes premieres in Charleston on Sat. May 26 at 7 p.m. at Dock Street Theatre. Purchase tickets and see the show's full schedule online at spoletousa.org.

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