Most culturally useful experiences – evocative events that can be compared and twisted, dissected and dismissed as they’re being digested – are experiences that hint at something already existing inside of us. The experience of the encounter awakens latent material – images and impressions and memories that emerge as if they were just waiting for the right occasion. As what we saw or heard or watched digs into us by being like something, the like points at our tacit assumptions about what being us is like.
Other cultural experiences are so personally unprecedented that they can’t be usefully compared to or even contrasted with anything else. These traumatic encounters with the unlinkable, with what can’t be latched onto, might sometimes leave us feeling uncomprehending awe, but mostly it’s as if there’s a joke we’ve missed out on. And that the problem lies in the limitations of our sense of humour. Does not getting a joke always have to be a form of failure?
The thing about going to La Porte, even though I had chatted with the performers before the show, is that I really didn’t know if it would be like anything at all, let alone what it would be like.
I knew that it wouldn’t be a Wagnerian epic, what with only two performers going non-stop for forty- five minutes providing the full range of the experience. If the show didn’t work, there would be nowhere to hide. With the benefit of hindsight, now I know there was no need for this to be a concern.
I knew that the synchronization of the performers, percussionist Huizi Wang and mezzo-soprano Ghislaine Deschambault, performing a piece without bar lines (kind of like a script without punctuation) would be a challenge. For about 6 total seconds over the course of 45 intense minutes, the performers faltered, almost imperceptibly. The other 44″ 54′ were beautifully synchronized.
I knew that the cocktail of storytelling and singing, forcing Deschambault to jump across a wide range of characters, with their different registers and accents and tone, might make the action impossible to follow. But her consistently clear pronunciation and gestures made it not only doable but also thrilling and rewarding to follow the story’s (mostly sung) narrative ark. (Deschambault was singing rich sounds with different voices while sometimes moving in and out of athletic postures that I remember seeing-but-not-trying during my one and only attempt at hot yoga).
I knew that matching a single percussionist with a single singer would create an unusual, possibly monotonous soundscape. It turns out that it’s a pairing of sounds that, while it lacks a bit of harmonic richness and some deep, bassline oomph, can create an eerie, unsettling sonic space. The lack of deep grounding helped the beat of the storyline’s rhythms leap out at the listener.
I also knew that, this being a contemporary classical opera, it probably wouldn’t be a packed house. The Conservatoire’s Théâtre Rouge wasn’t quite half-full, but the tightly-packed-together audience was enraptured, with the exception of one listener who, after about 10 minutes, had had too much. There wasn’t the tension of the waves of energy a packed house provides, but the sharp, intimate energy of an audience hanging on every syllable more than filled the space.
What I really didn’t know was that, as an overall experience matching story and music, La Porte would be like so much, that it would resonate like crazy. La Porte is a simple, bare musical fable inspired by the stories of Franz Kafka. By weaving increasingly fabulous stories, a peasant tries to entertain and persuade a gatekeeper to let him pass through a gateway (the door of the title). The peasant makes six attempts at winning over the gatekeeper, who is an encouraging audience. Despite charming the gatekeeper, his stories fail each time and he never makes it through the door.
We don’t every really see why the peasant is trying to get through the door and this is one way the work lets us in. We don’t easily understand why, even though the gatekeeper is amused by the tales, he doesn’t let the peasant through the door, and this is another. The peasant’s failures to get through the door, the unspecific location of the failure and the unclear purpose of his pursuit, all of this opens up a space where any number of tedious, recurring, nearly universal modern human quests can be projected onto the stage’s nearly bare space.
In La Porte, the door is always the same door and the guardian always offers the hope of getting through. Who doesn’t know something about the experience of taking up a temporary identity – becoming particularly entertaining or endearing or compliant – in order to fit through a desired, enigmatically guarded access point, guided by rules out of our control? Have you ever tried getting through to the right person at the Ministry of Transportation? Or tried reaching an actual human being on the other end of a company’s customer support phone line?
This is part of the confounding condition of social modernity, where we rely on our dealings with apparently human individuals acting as inhuman, mechanical representatives of the Protocols of Authority, individuals who turn out to be oh-so-human. And the confusions of this reality are just leaping off the stage in La Porte, with the help of the excellent performances and stage direction. Charming the impersonal representative of authority can be so much more important in stepping through social doors than simply following the rules and hoping for the best. There are rules about the doorway, and then there are the things you need to do and be to get through the doorway. Just ask anybody who’s at the mercy of a border guard having a bad day.
One of the benefits of procrastinating in writing a review is that it gives the reviewed material time to sink in (or to quickly fade away). When, a week after I had seen La Porte, I watched a cyborg character in Westworld say “I believe there is a door… to a world that we have lost”, I was brought back to the possible meanings of the opera. And it was Westworld that was reminding me of La Porte, not the other way around. One bit of cultural experience, featuring a massive cast and financed by a hundred-million-dollar budget, echoed through another bit, financed by a few thousand dollars that propelled the efforts of a small group of talented people. This, for me, was incontrovertible personal proof that the opera had found a way to be useful, to sink in. It was also evidence that the value of cultural experience can almost never be known in advance.
La Porte was produced by Chants Libres. For more information about Chants Libres events, click here.