Poster Martin Bakari
Martin Bakari
Walker Art Center

Wise Blood: 'Opera exhibition' at the Soap Factory is a stunner

Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel Wise Blood is ripe for operatic adaptation: it's full of archetypal characters hoping for their own forms of salvation, and their destinies collide in ways both comic and tragic. It's allegorical, violent, and beautiful.

These are small characters, though, in a small world, and they might feel lost in a vast theater. They're at home now, for an all-too-limited run, in a striking new "opera exhibition" by composer Anthony Gatto and artist Chris Larson.

At the Soap Factory — a Minneapolis art space that takes its name from its original function — Larson has created sculptural sets that meld almost seamlessly with the gallery's exposed brick-and-beam interior. (The Walker Art Center is a co-presenter.) The audience, which tops out at about a hundred people per performance, moves through the space with the characters as anti-preacher Hazel Motes pursues his quixotic quest to found a "Church Without Christ."

Gatto both adapted the libretto and wrote the score, which requires a large brass band (the Adam Meckler Orchestra) that evokes the story's southern setting — but don't expect any jazzy interludes or ironic rearrangements of "Dixie." Gatto's contemporary style is somber and atmospheric, veering from unsettlingly clamorous to eerily serene. Though there are comic moments in the show, laughter dies quickly and may be replaced by tears; in its total effect, the piece is almost an American requiem.

The musicians — conducted by David Bloom — move with the singers, occupying special spaces carved out for them (sometimes literally so) in Larson's fascinating sets. Larson, a multimedia artist who's best-known for his large-scale wooden structures playing on vernacular architecture, works with director Michael Sommers of Open Eye Figure Theatre to create a sense of depth and space in the Soap Factory's cozy confines--aided by smartly deployed video screens.

Rooming-house bedrooms are pitched on their sides with ceilings (which become walls) open to viewers; the home of wild-eyed young Enoch Emery (Jason Paul Andrews) is built with false perspective that simultaneously suggests both claustrophobia and limitlessness; an office is built with walls that seem to evaporate as they extend up from the floor and down from the ceiling. Larson has often played with forms familiar to Minnesotans (ice houses, mills); here, he brings us to the South, where buildings age in slow motion.

At the center of this bleak but rich tale are an extraordinary cast with diverse backgrounds, from nationally-known opera stars Martin Bakari (Hazel Motes) and Brian Major (Asa Hawks) to theater actor Jason Paul Andrews (Enoch Emery) to early-music guru David Lee Echelard (Onnie Jay Holy) to adventurous singer-songwriters Gelsey Bell (two characters) and Holly Hansen (Sabbath Lily Hawks). (Grant Hart was associated with the show when it was first announced, but he is not present or credited in the final production.)

The singers use microphones to ensure an effective sound balance; I appreciated the decision to have them use hand mics instead of body mics, which so often malfunction and distract. With musicians and singers in tight proximity to the audience, this is opera up-close-and-personal: a show that lands its punches in the gut.

Hansen, frontwoman of the band Zoo Animal, is particularly heart-wrenching, her softly cracking voice a striking contrast to the more conventionally operatic style of the other singers. Echelard cuts an unforgettable figure as a hurdy-gurdyist in a Nudie suit, his piercing countertenor sounding ready to veer at any moment into either a Purcell song or a square-dance call. At the center of the drama, Bakari (clad by Larson in a shimmering blue suit) faces off against Major in a yin-yang standoff between a believer in denial and a disillusioned soul preaching the Word of God.

Though it's not perfect (a long scene just before the climax sags, when the show should instead be steaming towards its denouement), overall Wise Blood is a striking achievement that has the members of its core creative team — many based in Minnesota — complementing each other in a production that achieves a haunting effect that's much more than the sum of its parts.

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