It was February 2020, and Mimi Johnson was pouring afternoon tea in the TriBeCa loft she once shared with her husband, composer Robert Ashley.
Johnson pondered the recent revival of Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) by Ashley, who died in 2014 and whose groundbreaking operas typically included blurred lines of speech and singing, flowing electronic accompaniment, and cryptic, witty storytelling. …
Another revival was to follow shortly thereafter, Ashley’s early 1990s eL / Aficionado. But due to the pandemic, Johnson was forced to postpone the nearly completed project until Roulette in Brooklyn, whose advice she sits for, approached her this year with a request to revive the revival; EL / Aficionado will play three shows at Roulette from Thursday to Saturday.
Ashley’s productions are designed not only to get New Yorkers to see these rarely seen works again, but to move on with their composer’s tight circle of collaborators gone. As for Improvement, Johnson and Tom Hamilton, Ashley’s longtime creative partner, painstakingly combed Ashley’s archives to create a new electronic score for the work, which was conceived as a recording and whose existing version thus contained vocals inseparable from the accompaniment.
“If we don’t organize these scores, and we don’t update and make the recordings available, Tom and I will die,” Johnson said. “And it would be much more difficult for someone else to do these operas.”
An easy way to express your belief that works can and should be performed more widely is to wear them with new flair. In the original “eL / Aficionado,” the Agent was starred by veteran Ashley baritone Thomas Buckner. But Hamilton, the musical director of the revival, was curious to hear the role played by the mezzo-soprano.
He and Johnson tracked down Kaylee Butcher, who had performed with opera troupes and new music ensembles, but had never performed with Ashley before. She was joined by another newcomer, Bonnie Lander, as well as Paul Pinto and Brian McCorkle, who have both contributed to numerous Ashley projects including Improvement, Perfect Lives and Crash.
As with 2019’s Improvement, the renaissance of eL / Aficionado accompanies a new recording to be released on Friday by Lovely Music, the influential new music label Johnson has run since the late 1970s. Hamilton, who also produced the album, believes that having two recorded versions available will serve as a guide for future artists and illustrate the potential of freedom of expression.
“I think Keighley’s work speaks to the vitality of the work itself and how it can change and grow in someone’s hands,” he said. “And I suspect that in the future bands will rely more on recorded material than music to capture the style of the piece.”
The opera features a spy named Agent who has done work for an unnamed organization throughout his career and is now facing trial before three investigators, one boss, and two more juniors. Through a series of obscure responses to them, sometimes reminiscent of personal ads or real estate advertisements, and sometimes psychoanalytic sessions, the agent links the four stages of her biography in reverse chronological order, apparently showing what led her to espionage.
The dense intertwining of speech and singing in eL / Aficionado, often performed in double-bar accompaniment at 72 beats per minute, seemingly allows for slight creative variation. But while Thomas Buckner portrayed the Agent as a morose figure expressing almost ghostly remorse for his actions, the Butcher’s interpretation adds a defiant tone, as if the Agent is just as confused as the audience is as to why her work should be the subject of close scrutiny. … A line like “Can you blame me for being skeptical? Simple boy. I don’t think he was 10 years old, ”Buckner’s desperate appeal to a confident confession.
Ashley was a fan of spy novels, especially John le Carré, but he notes in the libretto that “eL / Aficionado” is “not a spy story” and that viewers should be aware that as the agent’s story unfolds, events become increasingly unrealistic.
Nevertheless, espionage trappings are important in a piece that makes up a quarter of Ashley’s tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea, which is broadly an allegory of American westward expansion. Johnson recalled that when she first met him, in the mid-1970s, Ashley was fascinated and worried by the CIA-staged Chilean coup of 1973, which led to Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. She believes that the Spanish name “eL / Aficionado”, which translates as “amateur” or “amateur”, is an allusion to these events.
One of the work’s four sections, My Brother By Name – Brother is the professional title of a trustworthy worker, is a continuation of the installation Ashley directed for the 1977 show at New York University. It consisted of stacks of Spanish-language newspapers, arranged in a grid resembling city blocks, with a searchlight telephone in the center. Ashley made periodic phone calls and the room filled with a mixture of his own unintelligible speech, Latin American music, and TV sounds.
In eL / Aficionado, an agent describes the play and argues that “the meaning of the scene is impossible to describe” – as if suggesting that Ashley himself was not sure what role he and other artists played in the country’s wider Cold War. project.
This ambiguity is one of many; the enveloping aura of mystery is a real achievement of the opera. Deprived of chase scenes, dead ends, neat resolutions and most of the other familiar patterns of spy storytelling, the twisted connection of Agent’s images and memories, the relevance of which even she cannot appreciate, creates an atmosphere of pure paranoia. In this age of fragmented reality, mass surveillance, and shocking regime changes, this is a typical 20th century sensation and the opera in which it is used is ripe for reappraisal.