Experimental opera from Du Yun projects a deeper meaning in NYC

United StatesUnited States Du Yun: Du Yun (voice and narrator), Satomi Matsuzaki (voice), eddy kwon (dancer), International Contemporary Ensemble / Kamna Gupta (conductor), Roscha A. Säidow (director). NYU Skirball Theater, New York, 30.4.2022. (DS)

Du Yun (make-up Nina Carelli) (c) Zhen Qin

Du Yun: A Cockroach’s Tarantella, Fervent of Life, Zolle

Du Yun’s operas are not just about the singing. They float across narrative meaning, a mixture of media, carefully crafted noise and a deeply felt connection that she extends to her audience. She is the mind behind these miniature, Gesamtkunstwerk creations – writing the music, creating the story and participating in the vocals and acting.

At the NYU Skirball Theater near Washington Square Park, two of Du Yun’s operas were presented in tandem with musicians from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), led by conductor Kamna Gupta. Du Yun was joined by Satomi Matsuzaki as a second narrator and improvisational dance artist, eddy kwon.

These are no ordinary creations, and they evoke a revival of serious experimentalism around age-old issues that are revisited in unconventional forms. Three works without break narrated the evening: A Cockroach’s Tarantella (2010), Fervent of Life (short film) and Zolle (2005). They were joined together by the themes of belonging, yearning, love and identity, and the blur between existence and death – leaving us unsure about which holds more meaning.

This was originally staged at Switzerland’s Lucerne Theater (whose international audiences have nurtured the experimental for decades), and there was a risk that New York City might not be quite ready to face its more culturally bold roots at a time where the city is less than avant-garde in its tastes. But the charged power of Du Yun’s creations announced the readiness.

Du Yun in A Cockroach’s Tarantella (c) Ian Douglas

Take her costumes. In A Cockroach’s Tarantella, we first see Du Yun in an all-black rocker/dominatrix outfit that does anything but scream clichéd. It’s completed by a slick helmet that mocks the smooth, odious back of a cockroach while confusingly drawing us towards a desire to touch it (unthinkable as that may be, as any New Yorker would agree). She pushes around a white balloon with her belly – pregnant, she mourns, with more cockroaches. Then, in Zolle, she appears in an all-white, futuristic, mod-rocker outfit with a bob haircut and soft, exaggerated shoulder pads. Here she is a wandering ghost, perhaps of the re-incarnated cockroach or perhaps of another woman. We are left unsure. We are also left realizing it does not matter which one.

The half-way point between the operas was Fervent of Life, a film set in a forest. It pulled the two operas together: the love aspirations of a spiritually tortured cockroach yearning to be human, and a woman with a suitcase and ticket, already having lived life, wandering through her purgatory and grasping for an understanding of others. Piecing it all together was the music, or rather the broader concept of sound. Compositionally, the lyrics and music blended together remarkably well, feeling as if words and music could never be parted.

Don’t expect to leave knowing the answers to these questions – what happened to the cockroach or what the wandering female specter comes to understand. By the end, it is the power of an aural, visual, philosophical and kinetic experience that we, in the city of cockroaches, have not seen for a long time. And that leaves one satisfied. Du Yun is bravely creating art with feeling, and it shows.

Daniele Sahr

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