Tuesday, September 06, 2016


Bay Area composer Erling Wold has written UKSUS, an absurdist chamber opera about the surrealist Russian writer Daniil Kharms, who was born at the end of the Tsars and starved to death by Stalin’s regime in a psychiatric hospital in Leningrad during World War Two. UKSUS premiered last year in San Francisco and after performances in Europe, returned for an encore with many of its original performers last week at the Oakland Metro Opera House, a rock club in Jack London Square. (Pictured above are left to right Laura Bohn, Nikola Printz, Timur Bekbosunov, and Roham Sheikhani.)

Having read Joshua Kosman’s review of the 2015 premiere and a few accounts of the revival, I was a bit apprehensive about an intermissionless deep dive into absurdist, surreal skits set to music, but thought the final Sunday afternoon performance was thoroughly absorbing and a complete triumph on its own terms. (Pictured above are Timur Bekbosunov as Pushkin/Kharns and Roham Sheikhani as M2.)

Part of the reason is Erling Wold’s score, which sounds like Kurt Weill meeting up with Philip Glass, with a strain of jazzy rock and roll enlivening the mix, filled with enough variations and dynamics to remain continuously interesting for close to two hours. The onstage chamber orchestra was sensationally good, with the great Beth Custer on clarinet (and even singing an aria), Rob Wilkins on trumpet, Joel Davel on percussion, Diana Strong on accordion, John Schott on guitar, Elzbieta Polak on violin, and Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass. Conducting from the middle of the audience was Bryan Nies above, who seemed to be having a ball leading the ensemble. Nies should call himself the Oakland Metro Opera House Conductor after leading West Edge Opera’s As One production in the same space last year.

In a fascinating New York Review of Books essay by Ian Frazier called A Strangely Funny Russian Genius, Frazier explains the cultish appeal of Daniil Kharms and that his OBERIU poets group’s “rejection of plot, sense, logic, and other consolations of meaning came out of a deep asceticism. ‘I’m always suspicious of everything comfortable and well off,’ Kharms wrote to a friend in 1933. Their aspirations were also, in a sense, patriotic. To their critics, they replied that they were seeking “a genuinely new art” for all of Russia. Their methods tapped the spirituality that Russians have turned to before in drastic times. Kharms admired contemporary mathematicians of the Moscow School who used mystical, nonrational thinking to crack previously unsolved problems in set theory and the nature of infinity. He idolized the formalist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, twenty years his senior, who had cofounded an artistic movement called zaum, from the Russian za um, “beyond mind.” Kharms’s friend and close OBERIU collaborator Vvedensky declared his three themes to be “time, death, and God.” As Eugene Ostashevsky explains, “Vvedensky strikes one as a religious mystic in that very modern manner which, identifying religion with doubt, regards the absence and even nonexistence of God as facets of His infinite transcendence.” Or to put it another way: the absurdity and chaos of existence, and the manifest absence of God in the whole ongoing mess, are themselves proofs of a transcendent God. And, may one add, of a funny God? Of a God possibly enjoying a laugh at our expense?”

Frazier continues: “Nowadays, at least in America, writers often describe themselves as storytellers. They may add that stories are how human beings live, and that we connect with one another through stories, etc...Whatever Kharms is, he’s not a storyteller. In fact, he is so far from being a storyteller that his work shows up all this story-storyteller-storytelling business for the humdrum received wisdom it is.” (Pictured above are left to right, Nikola Printz as Our Mama, Bob Ernst as Michelangelo and Laura Bohn as Fefjulka.) .)

The libretto, attributed to VADA with direction by Jim Cave, admirably takes on this spirit of utter absurdity, weaving in bits from Kharm’s biography and his adult writings, which were only published in the 1980s after being hidden and stored away in Russia for decades. They range from parodies of Pushkin hagiography to absurdist stories of old women. This could be tiring in its senselessness but there is enough variety in both the stagecraft and the music that the opera stays interesting, helped along immeasurably by the beautiful voices and fearless, pratfall-filled acting of the cast.

Particularly impressive in the central role, the young Kazakh-American, Los Angeles based tenor Timur Bekbosunov above gave a lovely performance, a calm center in the midst of the craziness, looking as if he had wandered in from a Soviet silent film version of Candide.

It would be fun to see him with his glam-rock band Timur and The Dime Museum, possibly battling the forces of Stalin (above, played by Nikola Printz).

My only real criticism is that the singers were amplified when they didn’t require it at all, particularly in the smallish Oakland space. Having just heard Laura Bohn in West Edge Opera's Powder Her Face and Nikola Printz in The Cunning Little Vixen filling the Oakland Train Station with their unamplified voices, it felt like a defacement of their gifts, and I know Timur and Sheikhani would have been fine without amplification too. Still, it’s the composer Erling Wold’s call, and since he appeared throughout as a supernumerary Soviet Guard (above center, flanked by Nikola Printz, Laura Bohn, Timur Bekbosunov and Bob Ernst), he obviously was satisfied with the sound.


Janos Gereben said...

Kudos for the review!

Hattie said...

I would love to have seen this. I did watch part of the vid you linked to of the original performance, watched part of it and will probably take the time to watch it this weekend.
I like what you say about story telling. It's the drive for closure that is so aggravating about this need for plots,etc.
Lots of things are unspeakable, or they can't be anything but surreal.

Unknown said...

Very nice article & lovely pictures! Now, when I read critical reviews of shows which use (vocal) amplification, it's always hard to tell whether 1) it's totally justified and the mics weren't needed at all, 2) it's justified, but only because the amplification was needed but was poorly done. This can happen when the miking is intrusive or excessive and doesn't "disappear" as it is supposed to do when it is done correctly*, or 3) the reviewer disapproves of amplified singers under any circumstances and criticizes the practice whenever possible**. However, there are esthetic considerations for miking singers which are more subtle than just making them "loud enough to be heard": when the accompanying ensemble is amplified, it is sometimes a good idea to mic the singers so that they blend with the ensemble better. Amplification in a contemporary opera like USKUS means that the singers match the sections which are, say, rock-based, or even minimalist-influenced (like the highly amplified Phillip Glass Ensemble). Even in situations with opera singers who might be able to make themselves heard over such sections, I submit that it's a valid stylistic choice to have them be "part of the band" rather than always sounding "natural". (Which isn't natural in that case.)

*I'm not implying that the sound engineer for this show wasn't excellent -- in fact I spoke to Erling Wold, who said that the engineer at Oakland Metro was really very good.

**I'm not implying that this is the case with the writer of this article!