- Monsters of Grace 1.0: A Digital Opera in Three Dimensions
The title for the new Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera was inspired by a mistake. Originally entitled Masters of Grace, Wilson made a spelling error in his notes and decided to use that instead. The revised title, with irony added by chance, resonates in an era when claims to any “master” narrative have become suspect. Nevertheless, months before its world premiere, this project has been promoted as a “masterpiece” in the making. Publicity has capitalized on the name recognition of its creators for “the twentieth-century landmark” Einstein on the Beach (1976); the producer Jedediah Wheeler proclaims that this latest “major” collaboration by this celebrated duo will inaugurate “a twenty-first century form of theatre”; the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, which realizes Wilson’s visual concepts in 3-D stereoscopic animation, promises to add an “unprecedented new dimension” in theatre presentation. These promotional tropes, like simulated “monsters” lurking in the wings, advertise the opera as a technological sequel to Einstein and a high art theatre counterpart to Jurassic Park, casting shadows of misguided anticipation that haunt the production.
The comparisons to Einstein and Jurassic Park have unduly dwarfed Monsters of Grace even before its complete development, considering the possible changes that might be made during the opera’s extensive one-year touring schedule. (Its status as a work-in-progress is reflected in Wilson’s refusal to photograph the performance at this point.) The new work is deprived of a chance to stand on its own and be appreciated as an elegant, if “minor”—in the sense of being young and unmasterful—gem. In fact, judged by the scale and visual technology in its seventy-minute, 1.0 version witnessed by Los Angeles, Monsters of Grace has neither Einstein’s aspiration to cultural monumentality nor Jurassic Park’s pretension to cybernetic virtuosity. It does, however, have ample and by now canonical traces of Wilson’s dreamscape and Glass’s electronically nuanced music-ecology. The best description for the opera to date appears in Wilson’s signature koan: “I’m not giving you puzzles to solve, only pictures to hear . . . you go to our opera like you go to a museum.” The opera’s most arresting moments emulate the evocative precision and paradoxical wit of Wilson’s statement, which plays on the double rule of sensory transposition and displaced dimensionality.
How can I “look at the music” or “listen to the pictures” as Wilson has urged? I have to recognize that there is an active perceptual interchange between my sense of hearing and that of seeing. In the opera’s impressive opening segment, the only visual stimulus consists of a screen of gradually transforming lights, while impassioned notes flow from the orchestra pit, where the Philip Glass Ensemble orchestrates a symphony of woodwinds and keyboards that includes Middle Eastern string and percussion instruments. As four operatic voices interpret Julaluddin Rumi’s poem “Where Everything is Music,” the lights expand from the cool spectrum of blue to iridescent pink, subliminally suggesting a rapid succession of ghostly and enigmatic images. The interplay of sounds filling the three-dimensional aural space complements the computer-rendered lights/sights, compressed on a two-dimensional screen. The opera’s playful effect flows from the pairing of Glass’s all-encompassing music with Wilson’s minimal design, allowing the audience’s imagination full play.
If there is any “new dimension” in this opera experience, it emerges not from its digital sophistication, but from the mixed-media presentation of its thirteen scenes, including seven sections of mediated images—observable through a pair of polarized lenses—interspersed with live performances of dancers moving slowly within the proscenium frame. Two-dimensional projected screen images, turned spectral by their 3-D optical effect, alternate with the actual human bodies, who appear curiously flattened out into moving 2-D images thanks to Wilson’s prolonged theatrical time, with the performers’ restrained gaits rendered into a sequence of tableaux...