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The Source
22 Oct 2016

The Source, an Important New Stage Work

On October 20, 2016, Los Angeles Opera’s Off Grand Series presented librettist Mark Doten and composer Ted Hearne’s The Source at the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater. “REDCAT” is a one-hundred seat auditorium in the Disney Hall complex.

The Source, an Important New Stage Work

A review by Maria Nockin


More oratorio than opera, The Source is as new as today’s headlines. Doten’s libretto is taken from the United States Army field reports, diplomatic cables, and short bits of sound from miscellaneous sources. In 2010, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning gave the military materials to Wikileaks and its media partners. It was the outing of these papers, many of which were labeled secret, that resulted in this soldier being sentenced to serve thirty-five years in prison.

Doten humanized selected passages from the huge array of material and has allowed the listener to grasp some of the human cost of war, not only to Iraqi and Afghani citizens but to the press and American soldiers as well. One of the outside quotations he uses is from Steven Hawking: “And how insignificant and accidental human life is in it.” Although Hawking may not have been speaking of Middle East war, his thoughts on the insignificance of life are what The Source conveys with sensitivity as it invites its audience to enjoy Hearne’s enchanting musical fabric. Listeners may have come for the news-oriented show, but they leave with an appreciation for the fine artistry demonstrated by composer and librettist in their construction of this most interesting piece.

Hearne’s instrumental music combines the sonorities of a string quartet, in this case violin, viola, cello and bass, with keyboard, guitar, and drums. To the mix, he added electronics and a vocal quartet. The electronic sounds include snippets from recordings including Clay Aiken’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Easy Silence,” and Dinah Washington’s interpretation of Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Hearne also used clips from interviews and occasionally a bit of electronic distortion. With these varied entries, he created a huge sonic tapestry that envelops his listeners in a multi-layered score combining classical string sounds sometimes played col legno (by the wooden side of the bow) with jazz rhythms and the previously mentioned electronics.

From this seemingly dry military material, Doten selected lyrical passages that came to life with Hearne’s creative soundscape. The twelve sections of the score reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. Doten and Hearne dramatized a dozen poignant musical snapshots of the horrors of war and its effects, both long and short term.

Director Daniel Fish had the audience seated on folding chairs on a level lower than the orchestra, which was behind a semi-transparent screen. Half the chairs faced the orchestra and half faced away from it, but there were screens on all four “walls” framing the space. At the post-performance Talk Back, we learned that the faces of people seen on the screens were relating to the presentation's final, musically unaccompanied combat video. The singers, all of whom were miked, sat among the onlookers. Garth MacAleavey designed the sound and Philip White was the vocal processing engineer. Doten and Hearne’s theater piece is revolutionary in its use of libretto material, it’s staging, and above all in the music from the fecund mind of Ted Hearne. Anyone in Los Angeles this week should definitely see The Source.

Maria Nockin

Cast and creative team information:

Composer, Ted Hearne; Librettist, Mark Doten; Director, Daniel Fish; Produced by Beth Morrison Projects; Production Design, Jim Findlay; Video Design, Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish; Music Director, Nathan Koci; Lighting Design, Christopher Kuhl; Costume Deign, Terese Wadden; Sound Design, Garth MacAleavey; Vocal Processing Engineer, Philip White; Assistant Director, Ashley Tata; Stage Manager, Jason Kaiser; Video Engineer, Keith Skretch; Sound Engineer, Nick Tipp; Vocalists: Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, Jonathan Woody; Cover Vocalist, Martin Bakari; Keyboard, Nathan Koci; Violin, Courtney Orlando; Viola, Anne Lanzilotti; Cello, Leah Coloff; Guitar, Taylor Levine; Bass, Greg Chudzig; Drums, Ron Wiltrout.

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