“What was that?” an opera fan asked her friend as we entered a parking lot elevator. Not an easy question to answer after watching aging magician. Ambiguity abounds and reality mixes with fantasy. The reality side is clear, most of the time.
Harold is a middle-aged watch repairer who lives alone. Although the repairs pay the rent, they’ve been neglected because he can’t stop thinking about the plot of a book he’s writing in which an aging magician fears his wondrous tricks will outlive him. not. While searching for a capable heir to his book of secrets, he collapses and is rushed to hospital.
Should he live or die? Harold can’t decide.
A phone call from his sister makes us realize his procrastination on the two repairs and the fate of the magician has become uncontrollable. When she asks him if he ate her sandwich, he dithers, but it’s clear it’s been too long. he ate anything. As seemingly out of place props scattered around the large workshop distract him (reminding me of my own working habits), the audience chuckles.
So far sounds like a sitcom, right? Why was my fellow elevator passenger confused? Well, probably because Harold’s various activities evoke the comments of the 29 members of the famous Brooklyn Youth Choir standing on risers at the back of the stage. Led by Dianne Berkun Menaker, seated discreetly in front of the stage on the left, the choir sings enigmatic phrases in the style of a Greek tragedy from an amorphous and mystical plane far removed from the everyday world I have sketched. Here they describe lives:
“The parts of a clock/heart
See the world as it revolves around them/like a wheel
And death is part of his journey”
But death need not end Harold’s story.
“The aging magician disappears and reappears as a child.
What has become of this child, this man? What is it now?
A set of wheels and gears? Pace?”
My elevator companion asked more directly, how to interpret this strange mixture of daily life and ineffable mystery? Well, its talented creators ask us to think of it as poetry rather than prose.
Ok, although I would have said it looked more like an abstract painting made up partly of realistic imagery – an immediate treat for the senses and minds of those sensitive to it, a treat they can imagine long after, while those with a more literal mind find the painting unsatisfying and easily forgotten.
But even the latter are likely to be wowed by designer Julian Crouch’s spectacular spooky closing backdrop, as it transports audiences to a strange new realm. Harold, or the magician from his book (perhaps they are the same man) climbs the risers out of the workshop to join the choir as he plays large, wonderfully eerie musical instruments designed by Mark Stewart. The set has become a spectacular feast of shimmering clockwork of wheels, gears and melting sounds as the production closes with an awe-inspiring and unfathomable final night sky projected from the back of the stage.
Perhaps the answer sought in the elevator is that the production itself asks a question: what is our role in a universe we may never understand?
An unambiguous fact is that everyone involved is exceptionally talented and creative. As Harold, librettist Rinde Eckert provided a tour de force example of performance art while the chorus and Attacca Quartet deftly reinforced moods ranging from humorous to mystical exultation. Paola Prestini’s score is an effective blend of lyricism and light modern dissonance.
Costume designer Amy Rubin had eerie black dresses decorated with magical symbols for the choir. Video lighting designer Joshua Higgason also heightened the magical mystery atmosphere of the 85-minute production with a continuous string of projected video images. And when the choir members created some sort of flying origami bird and a human puppet out of crumpled paper, her lighting enhanced the beautifully playful effect.
Delayed for two years by the pandemic, aging magician was the last production of the San Diego Opera season and the first of a probable series of DEVIATION series collaborations with Beth Morrison Projects, a leading producer of works by emerging composers, librettists, directors, designers and performers. It’s a precious relationship. Surprisingly fresh creativity is welcome, even if it sometimes leads to unanswered questions in an elevator.
The San Diego Opera will soon announce its 2022-23 season. Visit the Opera company website for more details.
Uncredited photos Karli Cadel.