Last year, with a small grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, I founded Opera Povera as a consortium of designers and performers whom I’ve worked with over the years. I proposed creating a one-act for the vocal and opera artist Juliana Snapper.
Because both Juliana and I are followers of the work of composer Pauline Oliveros, we felt a strong creative draw to realize a performance of her groundbreaking, politically conceptual light and sound composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. Premiered in 1970, this innovative work details a system of conductor’s gestures that lead musicians through liminal performative states, fusing bright, coloristic illumination and timbre at the edge of instrumental practice and improvisation.
Pauline writes: “Shortly after it was published in 1968, the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas fell into my hands. Intrigued by the egalitarian feminist principles set forth in the Manifesto, I wanted to incorporate them in the structure of a new piece that I was composing. The women’s movement was surfacing and I felt the need to express my resonance with this energy. Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life. Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work “¦Though everyone knew Marilyn Monroe, hardly anyone recognized Valerie Solanas or took her Manifesto seriously. I brought the names of these two women together in the title of the piece to draw attention to their inequality and to dedicate the piece.”
Pauline’s sound and light poem is staged in conjunction with a kind of acting-dance and acting-vocalise. These are based on a Los Angeles Times photograph from 1958 depicting Lana Turner fetching her then-13-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane from a downtown LA police station after the girl was found wandering on Skid Row. The photo has a strong, McCarthy-era resonance — a young, awkward woman in trouble with the state. When I explained this to Pauline and how the body language in the photograph implied all kinds of restriction, she said, “Yes, I was there, I remember.”
I was making photo collages for a production kit for the project and ended up buying up old copies of LA Times photography books from thrift stores to cut up. I kept coming back to that same photo and its disturbing companion image on the inverse side. In a strong way, they contained, on this one page, the only identifiable gay personae in the book. One was of a fugitive teenager, who later came out as a lesbian. The other showed a young man hanging by the neck from a chandelier in a bizarre Hollywood sex murder. These photographs are handed to my designers to conceptualize on their own, a way of working established with the costume designer, Stacy Ellen Rich, over the years.
Cheryl Crane obliquely relates to Marilyn Monroe, as Crane’s mother was Lana Turner. She also relates to the SCUM manifesto in a harshly literal way in that she stabbed Turner’s abusive boyfriend the gangster Johnny Stompanato to death with a kitchen knife a year after this photo was taken. The scene we are offered on stage is an operatic fiction, a dreamlike rendering of the 30-or-so minutes in the interrogation room just before the moment captured in this photo. A rabbit glows, a snail emerges, a turtle and hare metaphor forms and de-materializes as the oppressed “realist” girl awaits the return of her angry mother in a magical sonic landscape drenched in shifting color.
Although Oliveros wrote the piece with directions for only a theater’s lighting system and an instrumental/vocal approach, there are complex political subtexts. I feel as if the slow-shifting spectra of the infinite colors paired with the drifting instrumental timbre imply something meaningful and useful in the title. Monroe and Solanas are far apart on the brutal spectrum of how gender functioned for these women, and I feel encouraged by Pauline’s monolithically multiplicitous structure to view gender in a similar infinite, spectral way with every kind of gradation. Staged in front of floating white sculptures by Paula Cronan, onto which the intense colored lights and a video by Julia Kunin are focused, a slow dream unfolds in time.
What Juliana Snapper must do as a performer is invoke the excruciatingly sustained “Cheryl Crane” narrative and simultaneously experience, as Cheryl, the beauty of Oliveros’ sensual live score. The other actors and dancers embody this dream through a spectrum of personae, as if Marilyn Monroe were at one point on a gender-based spectrum and Valerie Solanas were on another. Pauline’s piece is a “visitation” into Cheryl’s reality from a future experience; a promise of a unique kind of sensual beauty from a distant future that, at the time, was impossible for her to envision.
PLEASE FOLLOW THIS LINK to video:
Opera Povera: To Valerie Solanas And Marilyn Monroe In Recognition Of Their Desperation. Plays Thu-Sat 8:30 pm; July 26-28. REDCAT New Original Works Festival.
Los Angeles-based composer and director Sean Griffin’s multi-faceted works explore interdisciplinary incongruities positioned at the intersection of sound, action, performance and the archive. His creative output manifests as electronic music, large and small-scale staged operas, collaborative installations, complex numeric choreographies and uniquely tuned acoustic concert music. www.seangriffin.org
REDCAT: New Original Works Festival
July 26-August 11; Thu-Sat 8:30 pm. Tickets: $18 general admission ($14 students: $10 CalArts); Festival Pass: $36. Seating is general admission and tickets are available for purchase in-person at REDCAT Box Office, or at 213-237-2800, or at redcat.org.
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Emily Mast|Melanie Rios Glaser|Heather Woodbury
REDCAT | Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (at the corner of W. 2nd and Hope Streets, inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex).