WikiLeaks Data Makes a Disturbing Night at the Opera

United StatesUnited States Ted Hearne: Soloists, ensemble (including members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra) / Nathan Koci (conductor) presented by San Francisco Opera Lab, Taube Atrium Theater, Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, San Francisco. 2.3.2017. (HS)

Isaiah Robinson in Ted Hearne's 'The Source' (Photo: Stefan Cohen)
Isaiah Robinson in Ted Hearne’s The Source (c) Stefan Cohen

Ted Hearne: The Source (2014)

Vocalists: Melissa Hughes (soprano), Samia Mounts (alto), Isaiah Robinson (tenor), Jonathan Woody (bass baritone)
Ensemble: Nathan Koci (keyboards), Jennifer Cho (violin), Natalia Verhilova (viola), Emil Miland (cello), Taylor Levine (guitar), Greg Chudzik (bass), Ron Wiltrout (drums)

Librettist: Mark Doten
Director: Daniel Fish
Lighting: Christopher Kuhl
Sound design: Garth MacAleavey
Vocal processing: Philip White

On his web site, composer Ted Hearne calls The Source an oratorio. San Francisco Opera Lab presented it as an opera. Whatever you call it, Hearne’s eclectic music resources wrench emotional responses adroitly and disturbingly.

After its 2014 debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and performances in Los Angeles, it arrived on Thursday at the Taube Atrium Theater in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, an adjunct of San Francisco Opera. The 75-minute piece uses amplification and electronic processing on four voices, both live and recorded, and a seven-piece ensemble. The instrumentalists include a string trio (members of the San Francisco Opera orchestra) and guest artists on keyboard, guitar, bass and drums. The voices, all of whom performed in the debut and more recently in Los Angeles, display a remarkable range of styles, from pure singing to neo-soul.

The results stretch the definition of opera but cannily fit the dramatic material. To create the libretto, Mark Doten excavated telling phrases and sentences from the vast reservoir of digital communications involving Chelsea Manning, and the 2010 WikiLeaks revelations on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the page—the audience was given copies of the printed libretto—the material sketches an impressionistic version of the story. It lifts phrases from private communications from Pfc Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who chats online with Adrian Lamo, a hacker who  eventually reported Manning to authorities, leading to Manning’s arrest. Another section uses Twitter posts by Julian Assange, co-founder of WikiLeaks.

Although the electronically processed words don’t always register when experienced live, Hearne’s fevered mashup of styles turns them into a complex musical haze that, in its way, mirrors the confusion of war. It evokes the effect provoked by the jarring secrets buried within the dry words of the military-speak diaries in the WikiLeaks data dump.

As in a Baroque oratorio, the music often latches onto a single phrase and applies musical development to it, creating chances to run with an idea. The final section demonstrates how compelling that can be.

“The Marine that engaged” is a slow-motion meditation on an Afghan war diary’s offhand admission that a shooter may have killed unknown occupants of a vehicle. Like much of the quotations from the diaries, Hearne uses a capella or lightly accompanied matter-of-fact recitatives like this one.

But he also creates strange beauty. “Smoke when the bird nears,” a phrase from another diary report, evolves into a neo-soul ballad, beautifully sung by tenor Isaiah Robinson. The piece finishes on a line from “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”: “Something here inside cannot be denied,” alluding to Manning’s budding transgender feelings.

“We called for illumination at 1630” takes on a different meaning in the context of publicizing stolen classified reports, as Hearne turns it over and over like a many-faceted jewel. Processing voices with Auto-Tune conjures up a keening chorus that mirrors the electric keyboard accompanying it. Tart harmonies reminiscent of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir jar the senses. The result has a weird elegance, and grips the emotions.

In the rectangular space, among an audience arrayed at an angle, the singers were seated before microphones. Video projections on the four walls showed the faces of 100 people who agreed to be recorded watching a video that was one of the star exhibits from the WikiLeaks data dump. The video shows a brutal attack from the air on a group of Iraqis that may or may not have been insurgents, set to a soundtrack of the participants coldly and matter-of-factly communicating. Their faces reflect concern, sometimes boredom, but mostly shock and pain.

The audience does not see the video until the very end, after the music stops. At the end, the audience sat stunned, unsure whether to applaud.

The lack of direct explanations or straightforward storytelling does indeed leave an audience feeling unmoored, out of sync, just like those faces on the screen. We can relate directly to these discomfited souls, and the music only makes us feel more like them. It’s not a fun night at the theater. It’s downright agonizing at times. But it leaves an audience thinking hard about what happened in these wars in our names.

Harvey Steiman

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