Are you ready to “be a child again” and relax and play? There’s a creepy woman who asks if she’s “not what you expected” but assures the viewers “there is nothing to be scared of just yet.” In the end, after I re-read the short story and re-watched this opera by the Boston Lyric Opera under concert master Annie Rabbat, I thought of this as an intriguing look into the possibilities, a beginning of an idea and perhaps an indication of things to come.
Produced by Boston Lyric Opera for operabox.tv, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is set to Philip Glass’ complete opera score and Arthur Yorinks’ full libretto. Edgar Allan Poe’s story takes place inside the mind of an immigrant girl being held at a U.S./Mexico Border Detention Center.
The woman (Sheila Vanderbilts), presented in black and white, wearing a man’s suit, tells us that:
Studies show that playing with dolls stimulates communication skills and emotional development in little girls. As a result, girls can say a millions things without uttering a word. They grow stable, resilient and won’t succumb to despair when life hits them in the head with a ton of bricks.
Why we still allow boys to grow up with such a disadvantage puzzles me.
Of course, in my head I’m screaming, boys play with dolls. I also hear my husband correcting me: “Action figures! Action figures.” No matter.
While I’m not in love with all the illustrations and the quality of the animation, the streaming experiences is suitably provides an uneasiness as it combines three stories:
- A mute immigrant girl on a perilous journey across the US border.
- A wealthy New England man, Roderick Usher (Jesse Darden), imploring his best friend, William (Daniel Belcher) to come visit him and his twin sister before he loses his mind.
- Television as “a window into our collective conscious, programming what we fear, what we long for, what we dare not speak.”
Using the television, 2D hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, we see two of these stories as presented on a television before we become more immersed in the action as the television drama goes full screen. The stop-motion illustrates the second story which is the tale by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The 2D rough hand-drawn animation is predominately black and white with touches of color for accent and doesn’t attempt to hide the feeling of grainy lines drawn in pencil. It looks like charcoal with washes and some watercolor.
The third story is shown with archival clips of contemporary life and television programs. At this point, the framing mimics that of an old-style television with rounded corners. From time-to-time, title cards help transition the action.
The stories don’t strictly stick to their own divisive mediums. We’ll also see clips of immigrants in detention as well as references to the Camelot myth of the Kennedy White House. Through clips we see a cross-section of not just the US, but the world. There’s dancing, a bit of it from Mardi Gras in New Orleans as well as dancing celebrations from other cultures and countries, there’s a funeral. As this is a recorded event, it is also possible to get and combine the best vocal performances of the singers. The voices become the narrators of this story.
During these COVID-19 times, I feel we must be kinder to each other and appreciate the innovations, particularly in the case of performance arts. I do love the last image. You might think both of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds” and Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” but it’s actually a starling murmuration.
“The House of Usher is the trap inside your chest that won’t let you breathe” and now is a time to let creativity breathe and move into our homes because we cannot go out. “The Fall of the House of Usher” premieres on BLO’s 29 January 2021. Stream on OperaBox.