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Cryptic: REDCAT Brings Opera Into the WikiLeaks Age

Ed Rampell: The Source is to be applauded for daring to tackle such controversial, complicated subject matter and for trying to find a form commensurate with the content for communicating it.
the source

THE SOURCE Opera Review

Many today consider the centuries-old medium of opera to be old hat and for stuffed shirts. But composer Ted Hearnes and librettist Mark Doten are helping to haul this venerable art into the digital era with the West Coast premiere of the multi-media The Source. Indeed, its innovative techniques are to opera what WikiLeaks is to journalism and in this one-hack - uh, I mean, one-act - 71 minute production, along with director Daniel Fish and other members of the creative team, Hearnes and Doten strive to invent a style that aurally and visually expresses soldier Bradley Manning’s courageous, alleged exposure of 734,000 classified documents to Julian Assange, who posted this top secret treasure trove about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan online for all the world to see.

To do so the artists completely reconfigured the Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theater - that experimental nook just downhill from Walt Disney Concert Hall - into an unrecognizable space. The REDCAT audience was divided in half, with two groups sitting in seats facing one another and above them were large white screens, upon which close-ups of faces filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (where The Source debuted in 2014) and a library were projected. The visages of the randomly selected multi-culti subjects are grim, somber and angsty while they watch - as it turns out (if this reviewer understood correctly) - what is probably WikiLeaks’ greatest revelation in all of its document dumps, the so-called “Collateral Murder” video (more on this below).

Your humble scribe sat facing the screen through which members of the seven piece orchestra could occasionally be glimpsed. Four vocalists - females Melissa Hughes and Samia Mounts; males Isaiah Robinson and Jonathan Woody - sat amidst the audience, apparently with lights shining on music stands bearing their librettos, as they gave voice to an often dissonant score.

In The Source, to tell the arc of intelligence analyst Manning’s complicated story and the classified cat he let out of the bag, the creators draw upon a multitude of, well, sources, ranging from sampling (such as the song “Mack the Knife”, originally from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which was probably as avant-garde in 1928 as The Source is almost 90 years later), atonal music, computerized imagery, military and Internet jargon, and much more.

The Source is to be applauded for daring to tackle such controversial, complicated subject matter and for trying to find a form commensurate with the content for communicating it. 

The libretto draws not only from the 483,000 Army field reports and quarter million-plus diplomatic cables Manning is believed to have transmitted to Assange for WikiLeaks to release to the world, but also the whistleblower’s own instant messages. The snatches of sung dialogue include phrases such as: “Are you a journalist?” (in a song called “Julian in a Nutshell”); “smear campaign”; “smoke when bird nears” and so on. In a post-show talkback with members of the creative crew and the REDCAT audience it was explained that the latter term is military lingo referring to a helicopter and firing a flare. (Parlez-vous “Pentagon-ese”?)

A refrain presumably from Manning’s IM-ing is heard probably more than any other line: “i encrypt as much as i can.” (“I” is lower cased in the libretto, which was disbursed at the six Source performances at REDCAT.) That’s is ironic as this experimental work is, to say the least, quite cryptic, which is often the case with art that is abstract and breaks with convention. Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker, often stressed the importance of the organic unity of form and content. But what may be even more cutting edge is using form to express content. One could say that some of the Post-Impressionists, such as Claude Monet and Georges Seurat, did that in their oils, using brushstrokes and other painting techniques to convey a sense of light.

To its credit, The Source seeks to do just that as these operatic pathfinders strive to blaze a new trail for an old mode of art. But the trick in successfully doing so is being able to evoke the meaning, sensation and so on in the spectators’ minds that the creators aim at unfolding. And while this reviewer admires The Source’s sorcerers’ efforts to do so and encourages them on their imaginative quest to find up-to-the-minute means of expression, their work is so newfangled and complex that I confess I was lost much of the time, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. What were the vocalists warbling and why? Who were those people staring at me from the screen in extreme close-ups and why were they giving us the once over (twice and more - as many of the punims reappeared)?

Finally, it began to come together in the grand finale, which actually ends in the most conventional way - albeit fittingly so. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!:] The witnesses appear to be watching “Collateral Murder”, the crown jewel in the treasure trove of forbidden info Manning purportedly leaked.

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This is aerial footage shot from (what I suppose is) a U.S. chopper murdering unarmed civilians in Baghdad, which Manning purportedly leaked to Julian Assange, who showed it to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on April 5, 2010. The gripping footage was projected onto the four screens at the REDCAT, showing two Apache helicopters opening fire on unarmed Iraqis, including two journalists, while some of the Yankee soldiers are heard gleefully joking about the mass murder of at least eight men, including a Reuters newsman and the driver of a van that happened by during the incident. After injured Iraqis were offered help by the driver, presumably to take them to a hospital, an Apache opened fire again, killing him. What is not shown in the video as projected at REDCAT or revealed n The Source is that the good Samaritan was a father - and two of his children inside the targeted van were also wounded in the July 12, 2007 airstrikes that were ucovered up - until WikiLeaks uncovered them.

What may be the most unjust thing regarding this slaughter is that the only individuals punished in connection to this war crime are not the servicemen who executed this atrocity, or Pres. Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the other war criminals who should be hauled before a modern day Nuremberg Tribunal for ordering the invasion of a smaller nation that had not attacked America (say, where are Saddam’s darned Weapons of Mass Destruction, anyway?!). Instead, Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to serve 35 years at Leavenworth, while Assange has been seeking sanctuary inside of Ecuador’s embassy in London for four years (his case is too complicated to get into here).

Recent news regarding Manning - who has renamed herself Chelsea Manning and is seeking to transition into becoming a woman - is that Chelsea tried to commit suicide behind bars on July 5, 2016. Meanwhile, Assange remains a fugitive of justice as WikiLeaks releases hacked emails purportedly from high ranking Hillary Clinton collaborators like John Podesta - although the Ecuadorean embassy, perhaps bowing to pressure, announced Internet access had been cut off to the world’s most famous hacker. And, on the day this reviewer saw The Source, yet another U.S. serviceman was blown up by an Improvised Explosive Device in the endless Iraq War, perhaps the biggest foreign policy calamity in American history. Let’s hope that as Pres. Obama - whose administration has ruthlessly persecuted whistleblowers like Chelsea - pardons her, Edward Snowden and drops any potential charges against Assange, as he leaves office. But don’t hold your breath…

The Source is to be applauded for daring to tackle such controversial, complicated subject matter and for trying to find a form commensurate with the content for communicating it. According to press notes, “The Source is presented under LA Opera's Off Grand banner, which complements the company's mainstage programming through a wide variety of forms of artistic exploration in a range of venues throughout Los Angeles. Its objectives are to serve a broader geographical area, increase the diversity of our audience and expand the range of experiences available to existing audiences.”

Although The Source’s Oct. 19-23 run may be over more adventurous opera-goers have other offbeat productions to look forward to as the art form expands for 21st century auds: “The 2016/17 season's Off Grand offerings include… at REDCAT… the 2017 west coast premiere of Kamala Sankaram’s… Thumbprint, as well as a screening of the classic horror film Nosferatu [by German expressionist F.W. Murnau], featuring a new score created by Artist-in-Residence Matthew Aucoin …

The Source is the fourth new work presented as part of LA Opera's multi-season partnership with Beth Morrison Projects. This collaboration… supports today’s most creative talents working in the fields of opera and music-theater…”

Nosferatu take place 8:00 p.m. Oct. 29 and 31 at The Theater at Ace Hotel. 929 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90015. See: http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/nosferatu/.

The Contemporary Opera Initiative is also instrumental in presenting Philip Glass’ Akhnaten runs Nov. 5, 10, 13, 17, 19, 27 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/akhnaten/.

Thumbprint runs from June 15-18 at REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/Thumbprint/.

Ed Rampell

This review is dedicated to antiwar activist Tom Hayden -Aloha oe (farewell to thee), truly one of the greats…

Ed Rampell