BWW Review: The Kitchen Finds Room for IMPROVEMENT with Robert Ashley's Modern Classic

BWW Review: The Kitchen Finds Room for IMPROVEMENT with Robert Ashley's Modern Classic
Gelsey Bell as Linda. Photo: Al Coote III

You may have your own idea about what "opera" means and is, but I'd bet it's a world away from what composer Robert Ashley--whose 1985 work, IMPROVEMENT (DON LEAVES LINDA), has been running this week at the Kitchen in west Chelsea--had in mind.

"I hate the word 'opera'," he told the New York Times in 1983 (they quoted it in his 2014 obituary). "I loathe and despise it because for us in the West it has only one, limited meaning." This, of course, was long before the annual Prototype Festival or the outpouring of works in the 21st century that Mozart or Handel, Verdi or Strauss would have been loath to compare with the genres they worked at.

BWW Review: The Kitchen Finds Room for IMPROVEMENT with Robert Ashley's Modern Classic
(l. to r.) Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, Gelsey Bell,
Brian McCorkle. Photo: Al Foote III

But, like the worlds that those masters of other centuries lived in, time marches on for IMPROVEMENT, which is a 23-scene allegory for an individual's self-realization, according to the production notes. It is a metaphor for the Jews forced out of Spain in 1492 and focuses on Linda of the title (the brilliant Gelsey Bell, bringing out all the nuances of the character), who is abandoned by her husband Don (the flexible Brian McCorkle in several roles) at a highway rest stop.

(According to the composer, "Whether or not Linda understands her story as an allegory of events and ideas in Jewish history since 1492--as American Jews might understand them--we can never know.... One thing is clear: She speaks as an 'individual.' She is impatient with organizations and with official forms. In this, I think, she is an American.")

IMPROVEMENT has been reinvented for its current production this week at the Kitchen, under the musical guidance of Tom Hamilton. Hamilton reconstructed the audio--it originally was not meant to be a staged performance but a recording--and has been involved with the opera, and the composer's music, since becoming a member of the composer's tour opera ensemble in 1990.

Of course, it still uses Ashley's musical language; you'll find no traditional arias and not much plot, but as the Times obit said, there is "spoken dialogue, chanting and even mumbling" along with some music that, yes, sometimes edges on melody.

BWW Review: The Kitchen Finds Room for IMPROVEMENT with Robert Ashley's Modern Classic
(l. to r.) Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, Gelsey Bell,
Brian McCorkle, Amirtha Kidambi. Photo: Al Coote III

Yet, because the six singers (plus the composer/narrator) who play all the characters in the score bring their individuality to the performance--and are expected to do so--the opera differs from the production that was recorded on Nonesuch Records, which includes the renowned Joan LaBarbara in the cast.

It may not be like anything you've heard (or seen, in the simple, yet effective stage and lighting design by David Moodey) before but it's utterly fascinating--with a wonderful cast of musician-composers-singers (and the composer himself as narrator) that verge on a Greek chorus in an unconventional staging that I found spellbinding.

To say that these artists--who have been involved in the contemporary music ensembles, Varispeed and thingNY--are endlessly impressive would be an understatement. Along with the already mentioned Bell and McCorckle, they include Amirtha Kidambi, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder and Aliza Simons. They all helped make this one enthralling, hypnotic and gripping evening.

There is one more performance in the run of IMPROVEMENT (DON LEAVES LINDA), on Saturday February 16 at 8pm. For details, see the Kitchen's website.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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