United States Eric Moe, The Artwork of the Future: Soloists, Instrumentalists / Alex Wen (conductor). Fresh Squeezed Opera, HERE Performing Arts Center, New York, 19.5.2023. (RP)
Libretto – Rob Handel
Director – Dara Malina
Costumes – Karen Boyer
Sets – You-Shin Chen
Video – Jon DeGaetano
Technical director – Dan Delaney
Choreographer – Joy Havens
Sound – Jillian Flexner
Lighting – Daisy Long
Props – Henry Newman
Sculpture – Jiaying Zhang
Spearmint Lodge – Omar Najmi
Najeen Teflo – Emily Solo
Ted / Dewey – Daniel Klein
Amalia Habitué / Shirl – Brittany Fowler
Eric Moe’s The Artwork of the Future may be zany, but it is also timely. The roughly hour-long opera, with a libretto by Rob Handel, delves into the hot-button issue of humans versus artificial intelligence. Fresh Squeezed Opera’s mission is to produce new works that resonate with contemporary audiences, and it hit the bull’s-eye with this one.
The opera begins with a TED Talk on the immortality of great artists and their works. The presenter, Ted (Daniel Klein) employs glib TED-speak to make the obvious profound. As he observes, you can find the music of Bach almost everywhere in the twenty-first century, including as a ring tone on your mobile phone. However, Bach worked in relative obscurity in his lifetime. Van Gogh was a commercial failure when he was alive, but now his paintings are among the most sought after in the market.
Ted opines that contemporary tastes are no measure of what will stand the test of time: freeing yourself to do your real work is the ticket to immortality. His message resonates with Spearmint Lodge (Oma Najmi), who is the sound technician for the TED Talk. Spearmint is an art-school graduate who makes ‘spectator-triggered musical robot installations’. Of course, his brilliance is unrecognized, and he has yet to sell a single work.
In an all-night coffee shop, Spearmint meets singer/songwriter Najeen Teflo (Emily Solo), whose genius has yet to produce ‘27 Years’, which will become her signature song. Najeen instantly warms to Spearmint’s new-found credo, as well as to him. Another customer at the coffee shop, Amalia Habitué (Brittany Fowler) tells Najeen that she is working on unlocking the secrets of time travel. Spearmint grabs onto this as a means to see whether or not they and their work will stand the test of time.
After a wondrous, if at times bumpy, ride through time, Najeen and Spearmint arrive at the Guggenheim Museum 300 years into the future. It is a world devoid of humans. Dewey, the condescending robot docent (Daniel Klein), informs them that their species died out long ago: humans were so obsessed with mobile phones that they took no notice of what was transpiring. Najeen and Spearmint’s artwork, however, has survived. In fact, the robots have no need for any other as it epitomizes the human era.
Upon returning to the present day, there is a philosophical split between Najeen and Spearmint. His artwork has survived, and he just wants to produce more. Najeen, on the other hand, wants to save humanity from self-destruction. So off they go 150 years into the future.
Humans still exist at this point in time, but they are being drugged into complacency and well on the path to extinction. Najeen and Spearmint meet Shirl (Brittany Fowler), a twenty-second-century hedonist, who is content to pop the drug-laced cubes served to her by Dewey in his guise as her robot servant. To Shirl, Najeen and Spearmint’s artwork brings up a sublime despair that is as ‘thick and sweet as honey’. Its creators, however, urge her to experience their art (conceived at a time when they were lovers) simultaneously to discern its true meaning.
Dewey is opposed to this but Shirl, in a moment of lucidity, remembers how to shut him off. Viewing Spearmint’s installation while listening to Najeen instills hope in Shirl which she spreads to the world. At least in this instance, human wins out over AI.
Scored for strings, clarinet, percussion, piano, keyboards and electronics, Moe creates an eclectic soundscape that is never lacking in terms of musical interest or depth. He writes some evocative, melodic passages for strings and clarinet. Extended passages of engrossing electronic music propel the time travelers on their journey. In the final scene of the opera, the percussionist goes wild in an explosion of sound, underscoring Shirl’s ecstatic cries that there is indeed hope for human kind.
There are times when the sounds coming from the band led by Alex Wen are so intriguing that they divert attention from the on-stage action. Part of the enjoyment of experiencing The Artwork of the Future was just watching the instrumentalists, who seemed to be having so much fun.
Moe’s vocal writing leans more to the declamatory than to soaring arias, but he sets the text expertly. He has the benefit of a committed cast who sing the bejeezus out of their parts and act up a storm. As Spearmint Lodge, tenor Omar Najmi sings with single-minded purpose and intensity. In his romantic scenes with Emily Solo’s Najeen Teflo, Najmi is quite the nerdy Romeo. Najeen is a more complex person than the single-minded Spearmint, which Solo expresses both through her nuanced acting and lovely, clear soprano.
Daniel Klein’s Ted has all the smoothness of a fast-talking salesmen. He is stiff and robot-like as Dewey, every inch the proper butler, but with defiance in his eyes and disdain in his voice. Brittany Flower’s plummy voice coupled with her comic flair gives Amalia Habitué more than a whiff of a mad-scientist vibe, but the mezzo-soprano really comes into her own as the pink-haired Shirl, garbed in an explosion of billowing fabric
Dara Malina and her production team created a set that is easily transformed into the various locales in which Spearmint and Najeen find themselves. Spearmint’s spinning and whirling mechanical masterpieces are displayed around the stage. Video projections are employed to express love – hearts bubbling across the stage when Najeen and Spearmint connect – as well as whirling vortexes as they are transported through time.
The feel-good ending of The Artwork of the Future was made even more so by an explosion of the word ‘Hope’ in bright yellow letters.