Mount Sodom, in the Judean desert, is made up entirely of halite, or rock salt. It continues to rise up out of the earth, as it has been doing for hundreds of thousands of years. As the heat, water, ice and pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere work to break down Mount Sodom’s rocks, portions separate and break away. One of these pillars is said to be Lot’s wife, the Biblical figure who defied God’s orders not to look back at her home, the city of Sodom, as it went up in flames. Maya Beiser was driving through the Judean desert when she saw the rock formation said to be Lot’s wife, eternally suffering her punishment, frozen as a pillar of salt.
Beiser says that it was at this moment that she became inspired to depict the story of Lot’s wife. She wanted to make her the counterpart to the protagonist in the poem of the Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux, I Am Writing You from a Far Off Country, which tells the story of a woman living in a world on the brink of destruction. Eve Beglarian composed a piece for Beiser with the same name, and she wanted to incorporate the work into her latest project as well, a cello opera entitled Elsewhere that she was developing with theatre director Robert Woodruff.
“Elsewhere is a culmination, for me, of a lot of the work that I’ve done to try and bring music and visuals and text and projection together, and to make a coherent message,” Beiser said recently in a telephone interview. “So it’s an expansion of the concert experience where still the music is the strong force, but there are all these other elements as well. And really, Elsewhere is an expansion of this piece that I’ve done I Am Writing to You From A Far Off Country.”
Maya Beiser is famous for her multi-media projects, and for her refusal to adhere to the boundaries of the traditional cello recital. Elsewhere is her most ambitious project yet. Joining her on the project are the theatre director Robert Woodruff, choreographer Karole Armitage, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. Eve Beglarian, Michael Gordon, and Missy Mazzoli have composed the music. The vocalist Helga Davis, and a team of four dancers, will appear with Maya Beiser on stage.
Beiser met Woodruff after attending Appomattox, the Philipp Glass opera that he directed at the San Francisco Opera. “I think [Woodruff] is one of the greatest theatre directors that we have today in the world. And he has this particular knack for music,” Maya says. “He really hears music and responds in this wonderful way that not every director does. So Elsewhere came out of this idea that Robert and I just wanted to collaborate together and we wanted to bring both our minds together and see just where does that take us. I think in that sense, what I do is rather different than what a lot of other cellists do. I mean, yes, I am a cellist, but I also think in a larger context about my art and so, for me, what I’m interested in is to create those events that are all-encompassing and are not just about the playing or the interpretation. Which is why commissioning is so important to me, which is why collaborating with the composer from the beginning and thinking of the concept and really trying to make a piece of art is really important for me.”
Beiser and Woodruff spent a year in libraries, reading everything that Michaux ever wrote. In Beglarian’s composition, “there is this whole universe that comes out of the cello,” Maya says, and she wanted Robert Woodruff to help her make this into a complete theatrical event. “[The text] is enigmatic, so it felt to me like it was important to really give an interpretation of the text with the visuals and with the theatrical elements.” After reading the texts, they set their goal on depicting a “community of women who are facing death, facing the end of the world, and how they react to this catastrophe.”
While the first half of Elsewhere includes I Am Writing to You From a Far Off Country, as well as Industry by Michael Gordon, the second half is inspired by the story of Lot’s wife, for which Missy Mazzoli has composed the work Salt.
“There’s the story of those two women, one is the woman I am portraying [in Far Off Country] and the other is the woman modeled or inspired by the story of Lot’s wife. With her, it’s about the idea of a woman who was [forcibly] evicted from her house and from her city and from where everything, her world, is being destroyed and she is refusing to follow God’s command and to follow her husband. So it’s the whole idea of taking a stand and not necessarily just following things arbitrarily but making the right choices or the compassionate choices.”
Both stories, of the woman in Michaux’s poem and of Lot’s wife, are stories about women, but both were created by men. These characters are nameless women in a male-dominated world. Beiser’s team, full of talented, creative, and successful women, is inspiring and reflects the strides women have made in recent history, while the themes dealt with here remind us of how much work is still left to be done.
To Beiser, the piece “is about the idea of bearing witness, and it’s about the idea that, [although] we in the western world don’t really want to admit it, the reality is that there are millions of women today who are being mutilated and mistreated and abused in so many different ways around the world. And not even just in the developing world. I open the New York Times every day and I read those unbelievable stories. There is the story in Canada about…this father who was just convicted for killing two of his daughters, because…they were dating guys in high school. And he and his son just calculated the murder of them. So things like that happen every day. There’s the story of the woman in Afghanistan who was raped and went to prison and recently has been released on the premise that she would have to marry her rapist. So that’s kind of the background, of course that’s not what the piece is about. But I think the piece is created in this world where it’s bringing those things to people’s consciousness, which I think is so important.
I saw in [Michaux’s text]…women all over the world who are facing catastrophe. It’s not so much the apocalypse as I’m seeing people just facing really terrible situations in life and oppression…this text presents such an amazing opportunity to speak about all those things. The idea that I’m calling it Elsewhere [is] somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because you can say that those things don’t happen here, they probably happen elsewhere – we think of it being somewhere else, but it’s really here. And there is this parallel, which I love in the text between what exists in our inner world and in the outer world. It’s a psychological thing and it’s really partly our own, a lot of it is the description of what she understands and there are a lot of ways of interpreting it. It’s not just a clear cut thing, it’s the inner world of women.”
Ultimately, however, Maya Beiser says what is so great about the piece is the music itself, and the journey that the cello takes throughout the performance. “[We] take the cello from being this pure, western classical icon acoustic instrument through this whole piece, [and] there is an evolution that happens, and in fact, at the end, I’m finding this electric cello in the sand. So I’m going to be playing different instruments throughout the piece. There are a lot of different sounds that will occur from the beautiful acoustic sound that we have come to associate with the cello, to really processed sound, to different ways that we can approach the cello today in the 21st century.”
Although Beiser refers to Elsewhere as an opera, it has also been her goal to make a piece that was compact enough to take on tour. “Usually, when you do a production like that,” she says, “you have weeks if not months in a particular space where you build it and you have everything at your disposal. So it was difficult to do something movable and tour-able and not so big that no one will ever be able to afford it. Which I kind of found to be a really cool challenge. The idea of making something that’s really strong and has a strong voice and that would hopefully be something that no one has seen yet.”
She says that the term “cello opera” began as a joke between her and Beglarian as she was composing I Am Writing to You From a Far Off Country. “We kind of did this reverse opera in a way because the idea is that the cello is the protagonist and the cello and the music carry the story and I’m speaking the text and there is a singer but the singer only vocalizes. So when Eve and I started working on the piece, we started calling it a mini cello opera. But when we expanded it and made it into this big piece with the second act, which is an opera in the sense that we commissioned a text and the text is sung by the singer Helga Davis, but all the music is still created by the cello: we don’t have an orchestra, we don’t have an ensemble. I’m really creating all the music. So we thought…it would be cool to call it a cello opera.”
In November, Beiser, Karole Armitage, and the project’s four dancers met for a workshop at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Center to work out the pieces choreography. In December, the whole team got together at Mass MoCA (The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) to develop the first half of the opera. “We moved to Mass MoCA and there we had everyone on board, all the designers, and it was really about trying things out, experimenting with how dark can the stage be, where is the lighting, how do we create a sense of water, deciding about a lot of the raw elements in the piece. Just creating the environment basically. And at the end of the week in Mass MoCA we performed the version we had at that point.”
In April, the team will take up residence at BAM in New York City to develop Salt. “[Erin Cassida Wilson] created the text for the story and she’s really depicting a woman, a modern woman,” says Beiser. “So there is this sense of ancient and modern that happens together in that piece. So it’s kind of bringing it more to our lives now…I don’t want to give away too much of the story. It’s funny because, it’s always a little strange to speak about a piece that way. I mean, it’s fun for me to speak about it, but I really think that a great piece of music and theatre is the kind of thing you actually have to experience. And in a way, all the descriptions are kind of useless after all…I always feel that if you have to speak about something too much, then it means it’s lacking. So the impact is really there when you are experiencing it, when you hear it and see it and are immerse in the experience.”
The world premiere of Elsewhere will take place in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on 12 October 2012. A series of performances will follow the following week at BAM in New York City.