The San Francisco Opera Lab in the Veterans Building offered a two-week run of Ted Hearne’s 2014 opera The Source, and it was a perfect piece for the intimate setting. The audience was seated in two sections facing each other, with four seated vocalists embedded among us, surrounded by four large screens and a hidden instrumental ensemble of seven.
The brilliant libretto of by Mark Doten was culled mostly from the Wikileaks data dump by military analyst Bradley Manning who became Chelsea Manning while in prison. One movement of the 75-minute work is a collage of reporters’ questions to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and another quotes email exchanges between Channing and hacker Adrian Lamo who eventually turned her in to the government.
Hearne’s score is a fractured marvel, sampling songs ranging from Mack the Knife to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and original stylistic variations that range from hard-driving rock to complex contemporary classical music. This was all anchored by four superb vocalists (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) whose amplified voices were processed in real time via Auto-Tune by composer Philip White, sounding much like Laurie Anderson’s early work.
The videos created for the piece by director Daniel Fish and Jim Findlay are mostly close-ups of individuals’ faces as they are watching something. It turns out that they are viewing a 10-minute video from the Wikileaks data dump taken from a U.S. military helicopter as they murder people on the street in Baghdad as casually as if they are pixels in a videogame, a scene that is shown onscreen to the audience at the end of the opera. I only wished we could have watched the band in action because they were so good following music director Nathan Koci on keyboard. So let's name them instead: Jennifer Cho on violin, Natalia Vershilova on viola, Emil Miland on cello, Taylor Levine on guitar, Greg Chudzik on bass, and Ron Wiltrout on drums.
I hope when Chelsea Manning is finally released from prison in a couple of months, thanks to the commutation of her sentence by Obama, that she can see this work.