Long Beach Opera’s liquid magic

Please refrain from terrifying the fishes.
Please turn off all cell phones.

Suzan Hanson and Ashley Knight

These unorthodox requests of courtesy came as operagoers became the fish out of water at the US premiere of The Paper Nautilus.  On September 7, the Aquarium of the Pacific was transformed into a theater for this unique contemporary work by Gavin Bryars, which marked the beginning of LBO’s new ‘Outer Limits’ series.   Audience members were ushered into the space under the huge blue whale that was suspended overhead.  The stage was set in front of the floor-to-ceiling aquarium in the main gallery of the building.

The performance opened dramatically with spoken word by Suzan Hanson, whose portrayal of Marie Curie was captivating throughout the performance.  Ms. Hanson conveyed the wonder, awe and love Mme. Curie had for science and nature.  This was the catalyst for the thoughts and meditations performed throughout this piece. Her gaze flowed from the depths of the ocean floor to the rays of light shining down from the upper levels of water guiding the audience through each movement.

Ashley Knight’s lovely soprano sound was the first to voice the inner thoughts of Mme. Curie.   She sang of love and admiration of science, demonstrating her strong ability to tie emotion to lyric.

Images of human, animal and creature were projected onto a large white sail, hung to one side across the back of the stage.   The transitions from one image to the next showed how we are all liquid, all connected. The projections, designed by Adam Flemming, melted into one another, blurring the lines between performance, history and art.

Peabody Southwell
Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell

Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell’s voice was rich, clear and solid.   Her tone fully embodied the deep sounds of the ocean.

The two singers were impressive in their ability to sing and be part of the ever-constant action happening to and around them.  They were often caught in the ebb and flow of ocean’s current and tides.  The staging and use of minimal props was just right.  Props would appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, enveloping the singers and dancers in their struggle against nature.

Nannette Brodie’s choreography was mesmerizing.  The dancers moved smoothly across the stage while tossing the singers to and fro, as if they were singing in the waves or the currents of the ocean. It was a beautiful homage to both the strength and tranquility of the ocean.  All the while, the ever-present backdrop of the aquarium was constantly moving and changing.  Fish and shark stopped by, each in their own tempo, to see the spectacle happening below.  Their presence kept reminding me that we truly were just guests in their house.

The writings of Marie Curie, Etel Adnan, Pope Leo XIII, and Jackie Kay became the lyrics that were set to the amazing music of this piece.  The fabulous orchestra, led by Benjamin Makino, was made up of 2 pianos and 6 percussionists.  At first, my ear had to become tuned to this unfamiliar sound, but soon it seemed as though they were actually playing the sound of the ocean and I was happy to be in it.

Long Beach Opera and its director, Andreas Mitisek, should be commended for taking on such a beautiful piece and for so wonderfully staging it at the Aquarium of the Pacific.  It was definitely a musical and theatrical experience like no other.  I count myself as fortunate to have seen it.

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