Long Beach Opera presents provocative ‘The News’

“If Jon Stewart composed an opera,” director Tanya Kane-Parry said recently, referring to the former host of the popular satirical news program “The Daily Show,” “it would be like Jacob TV’s ‘The News.’ ”
June 15, 2016

“If Jon Stewart composed an opera,” director Tanya Kane-Parry said recently, referring to the former host of the popular satirical news program “The Daily Show,” “it would be like Jacob TV’s ‘The News.’ ” Like Stewart, the avant-garde Dutch composer Jacob TV (whose given name is Jacob ter Veldhuis) exposes how the media has tampered with our moral compass, warping our sense of reality.

The difficulty in determining what’s important and how to think critically amid our distracted media culture are just two questions central to the experience of Jacob TV’s video opera, “The News,” getting its West Coast premiere by Long Beach Opera at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on June 19, 25 and 26. 

“How do we negotiate a path through our lives when we’re bombarded by non-sequiturs all day?” Kane-Parry said. “We don’t know what to do with all this crap. I can be in a temple in Japan with someone instant messaging me about a flood in Paris. It creates a fascinating paradox. We’re never truly present, with ourselves or with others.”

The opera, which projects topical material culled from worldwide news footage, runs 70 minutes with no intermission. Carefully selected clips include speeches by world leaders, celebrity interviews, women’s makeup infomercials and the plight of Syrian refugees, with multiple segments of footage bumping into one another on several video screens. 

“Watching and listening to the news is our tribal event,” Kane-Parry said. “But where do we go for news, and how do we know it’s reliable? The media doesn’t have a moral compass. That’s why this upcoming election is so big. Are we losing our ability to think critically?”

Kane-Parry said the media-based opera is a powerful provocation for the audience to question everything. Growing up in a mixed Brooklyn neighborhood, she said “The News” is a good fit for her inquisitive temperament.

“Being a New York Jew, I was raised to question everything,” Kane-Parry said. “Just because someone is older doesn’t mean he’s right. You grow up with a moral responsibility to question authority, and that encapsulates so much of our identity.”

Kane-Parry also liked how “The News” breaks formal barriers. “The older opera format can be elitist and somewhat irrelevant,” she said, “but Jacob wants the audience to feel as if they’re in a TV studio where it’s all about keeping them entertained. That’s become such a convention in our TV lives.”

In interviews, Jacob TV cites composer Steve Reich’s works from the 1990s, like “The Cave” and “Three Tales,” as key influences. But no one would mistake the Dutch artist’s self-described “reality opera” for Reich. As critic John von Rhein wrote, Jacob TV is his own man, “outrageous, always exhilarating, sometimes inspired.”

The opera’s unpredictably eclectic score, for example, employs elements of rock, blues, jazz, classical, world music and electronics. The news clips are accompanied by rhythm vocalists Lori Cotler, whose stage name is Loire, and Maeve Höglund. 

As co-anchor of the opera, soprano and rhythm vocalist Cotler, who calls herself “a nice Jewish girl from Long Island,” is onstage throughout “The News.” 

“It’s an ultra-marathon,” Cotler said, “a relentlessly demanding show. The footage we see above and behind us isn’t just a backdrop. It’s like singing a duet. When there’s a talking head on film, whether it’s Obama or Charlie Rose or the Dalai Lama, I feel I’m singing with him. Duets, trios — it’s all part of the tapestry as we journey through the news cycle.”

Cotler said much of Jacob TV’s score was derived from actual voices on the news clips. “There’s a flow, a rhythm there,” she said. “There are all these moving parts — the instrumentation, the voices and the speech grooves. When I heard some samplings of Jacob TV’s music, I thought, ‘I could do that acoustically.’ ”

Trained in konnakol, a South Indian rhythmic and percussive art similar in some ways to scat singing, Cotler gave an example of one news clip where the art is used to striking effect. “It’s in sync with an array of code, of stock market numbers,” she said. “But when you watch these clips, listen to the cadence and intonation of the words. It’s hypnotic. There’s a subliminal atmosphere in the rhythmic language of ‘political speak.’ It’s a cadence that goes along with power.”

Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic director, conducts a nine-member instrumental ensemble and also makes a few cameo appearances in the opera. “I was especially impressed with Jacob’s creative skill in echoing and mirroring the video selections with his [eclectic musical] style, played by a brass band,” Mitisek said.

Mitisek also said different elements have been added to LBO’s production. “[Donald] Trump, of course, is new in our version,” he said.

Though “The News” offers a fair share of hilarity and absurdity throughout, for Kane-Parry it was the tender and compassionate moments that resonated most powerfully, especially in two news clips — one of a woman in Somalia hiding in a cave with her kids while fighting rages around them and another showing Syrian refugees. 

“A mother hiding in a cave trying to feed her kids and a mass exodus,” Kane-Parry said. “Those moments are emotionally compelling and timeless. As human beings, we have not evolved from sitting at the campfire using stories to tell us who we are. Despite all our technology, this is our human condition. How do we not become numbed? How do we stay engaged?”

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