The Pleasures and Perils of Reviving a Robert Ashley Opera

For opera singers, taking part in a half initially created by one other artist is as widespread as respiration. But vocalists who concentrate on up to date works face a totally different problem: inhabiting a character whose first look, performed by one other (typically nonetheless residing) singer, has been documented in audio or video.

When you’ll be able to see and hear a position’s originator at work, presumably with the composer’s blessing, how free are you to make that position your personal?

Gelsey Bell, a charismatic and fiercely clever performer whose résumé extends from guerrilla road theater to Broadway, has created her share of roles, not least the modest, pious Mary Bolkonskaya in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Now she’s going to seem in a revival of Robert Ashley’s “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda),” from 1985, wherein the composer’s combine of sung and spoken texts and clean digital accompaniment advance a cryptic story of epic scope.

Ms. Bell was within the unique forged of Mr. Ashley’s remaining ensemble opera, “Crash,” which had its premiere as half of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Others from that ensemble — Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder and Aliza Simons — will be part of her in “Improvement,” on the Kitchen in Manhattan Feb. 7-16.

In this opera Ms. Bell assumes the central position of Linda: a fashionable American Jewish girl (whom Ashley based mostly on the mom of a childhood pal) deserted by her husband, but additionally employed as an allegorical illustration of the Jewish diaspora, beginning in Spain in 1492, when Jews have been expelled by royal decree, and persevering with to California within the mid-20th century. The position was created by Jacqueline Humbert, an effervescent artist featured on the 1992 Nonesuch recording of “Improvement.”

HUMBERT There’s just a pitch assignment and words. You can twist those words sonically however you feel like interpreting them. But he had this passacaglia [a sequence of variations over a repeating figure, usually in triple meter] running through it, these pitches, and they run through the whole piece.

Was the interpretation largely left open to you?

HUMBERT There was a lot of back and forth: I would try something, and he either liked it or he didn’t. We went through many incarnations before we hit on it.

Gelsey, you’re a scholar. Did you undertake a similar kind of preparation?

GELSEY BELL Well, I’d read Bruno a while ago when I was working on my dissertation. I’d read [Frances Yates’s] “The Art of Memory.” And I’ve done some more recent reading on 1492 and what has happened since. But also, one of the things that made me fall in love with Bob’s work, many years ago, was this idea of the West Coast identity of the person who had gotten so far away from the Old World, and what that meant for a diaspora of people coming from Europe.

You’re coming to Linda with Jacqueline’s performances and recording out there. To what extent do you feel beholden to what’s been documented?

BELL I first got to know this piece through the recording, so there are many aspects of what you did, Jackie, that feel really essential to me.

But at the same time, there’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from yours in many ways, Jackie, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.

MIMI JOHNSON In this piece in particular, the recording is very important. Jackie, of course you cannot forget that in live performance, you doubled your own recorded voice.

HUMBERT That was a trick in itself, because the task there was to match every syllable to what was on the underlying tracks.

JOHNSON After you guys finished “Improvement,” all of the other operas Bob made in a completely different way.

When “Improvement” was staged originally, the singers were vocalizing over their recorded parts?

HUMBERT The voices were embedded in the orchestra, and they couldn’t figure out how to separate them at the time. Tom Hamilton [the music director] has recently been able to do it, so they’re able to perform it live.

BELL And Tom said he had a conversation with Bob at the time they were making the recording, and Bob was like, “We’re never going to do this live. This isn’t about a live version; this is about the recording, so don’t worry about this.” And then, you guys did it live. [Laughs]

What are the biggest challenges of “Improvement,” and what are the most satisfying things about it?

BELL What’s hardest? On a purely technical level, the way we have things set up now is that every word in the opera has a certain amount of beats, and there’s just that many beats that we’ll do, every show. It’s not like someone is pressing cues to follow you; you start those beats and the metronome’s going, and it will keep going until you get to the end.

This is the first time I’ve ever been part of a piece that has been that rigid that’s so long. And there’ll be large sections where if you’re off, you just will have no idea for a while. It’s a very different way of working than having a conductor who’s following you.

It’s so much fun performing Bob’s work. The language just never stops giving, both musically and philosophically. It’s some of the most enriching work that I’ve done, because every rehearsal you find something new, and something new speaks to you.

Divorce has been a very big subject in my life, and there’s just not that many operas that deal with that aspect of human interaction. Around the time that you guys were recording this, my parents were getting divorced. It speaks to me in a way that a lot of opera just doesn’t. There’s something really amazing and emotional about being able to inhabit this role.

HUMBERT I would say that the most challenging thing in doing “Improvement” was to make it sound effortless. There’s so many words, and it’s so hard, but he didn’t want there to be any sense of a struggle going on. It took a lot of practice to come to that place where it sounded effortless. But the most satisfying thing is when you finally get it, and you can do it, it feels wonderful.

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