June 12, 2015
“This is the way the world ends,” wrote T.S. Elliot. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” In Los Angeles Opera’s presentation of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s apocalyptic opera, Dog Days (on stage at the Cal Arts REDCAT theater through Monday), the world ends with both — a plaintive whimper and a rain of bombs. All that’s missing is Kurtz’s doomsday refrain from Heart of Darkness, “The horror. The horror.”
Based on Judy Budnitz’s 1998 short story, Flying Leap, Dog Days is a grim, two-act opera about an isolated family’s disintegration while trying to survive in a wasteland of violence and starvation. It’s much the same world that Cormac McCarthy depicted in his novel (and later, the film) The Road.
Dog Days premiered in 2009 to resoundingly positive reviews and is now being presented by Los Angeles Opera as part of a tour produced by Beth Morrison Projects. It also represents the first in a series of three planned collaborations between L.A. Opera and Cal Arts’ REDCAT to present new operas by contemporary composers David Lang and Missy Mazzoli, shows that could never work (economically or dramatically) in a traditional opera house setting.
Shockingly intimate, viscerally emotional, graphically violent, sexually explicit, and tragically sad, Dog Days is in-your-face opera that is definitely not for everyone. It is the closest any opera in memory has come to approximating the French dramatist Antoine Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Emile Zola’s “bleeding slice of life.”
The world is already descending into military chaos and ecological disaster as the opera begins. A desperate family is subsisting on whatever food they can scavenge and the occasional air drop of governmental care packages. Food is running low, garbage is piling up, and tempers are fraying.
Howard, the father, (James Bobick) is a man determined to hold his family together at any cost. He is stubborn to the point of immovability, abusive, and domineering in the style of an Old Testament patriarch. His brutality is counter-balanced by the stoic, quiet suffering of his wife (Marnie Breckenridge) as she struggles to maintain some semblance of domestic normality. There are two crass teenage brothers: Elliot (Michael Marcotte) and Pat (Peter Tantsits) who spend their time trying to get high and wanking off to crumpled images of unattainable Playboy dollies.
And then there is Lisa, their innocently sensitive, 13-year-old sister, played by the remarkable Lauren Worsham, who received a 2013 Tony nomination for her role as Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Lisa is the lens through which the power of the drama is most keenly focused. She is also, perhaps, civilization’s last chance at redemption. Lisa is the lens through which the power of the drama is most keenly focused. She is also, perhaps, civilization’s last chance at redemption.
Budnitz’s short story begins with the line, “The man in the dog suit whines outside the door.”
He is a stranger with no name, a man who has slid so far down the evolutionary ladder that he has adopted the persona of a dog. As played by performance artist John Kelly, he is a bizarre hybrid who exists in a nether world between human civilization and pure animal subsistence.
Lisa, who is desperate to find any form of loving connection, befriends him, secreting him scraps from the garbage, as long as there are scraps to be had. But this is a world where compassion vies with survival as the food, water, and electricity run out.
Dog Days is operatic shock-and-awe, a bombardment of the senses. But it is an assault modulated with moments of heart-felt tenderness personified in the character of Lisa and her relationship to the dog/man she ironically names Prince.
The opera’s downward spiral toward “the horror” is skillfully modulated by Vavrek’s harsh, vernacular libretto and Little’s wide-ranging musical score, whichis performed brilliantly by the seven members of the Newspeak ensemble, under the direction of Alan Pierson. Little uses a multitude of contrasting musical styles to tell the story: from atonal, percussion-heavy modernism and propulsive minimalist cadences to melodious show tunes worthy of Broadway, grinding rock rhythms accentuated by an electric guitar, and amplified white noise, which comes to symbolize the ultimate, electronic flatline of civilization as we know it.
Directed with a keen eye for character detail by Robert Woodruff, the production profits from its years of development. Every moment and action is focused to laser beam intensity. But there is one moment (aria) that stands out from all the rest. Alone in her room, Lisa partially disrobes and gazes deeply into a mirror as her live image is projected in extreme close-up above the stage.
“Hello beautiful girl,” she sings. It is a scene of penetrating honesty combined with a tragic sense of impending doom. It is a tour-de-force that is brought to its ultimate dramatic intensity by Worsham’s performance.
In his non-speaking role as Prince, Kelly conveys a rich vocabulary of emotions through movements as he is befriended by Lisa, challenged to “stand up like a man!” by Howard, and is ultimately hunted for his flesh as the last vestiges of civilization fall away.
Through the evocative nature of its music and lyrics, the power of its performances, and the look of Jim Findlay’s set, Victoria Tzykun’s costumes, and the video projections by Eammon Farrell, Dog Days is an assaultive experience. Be warned.