Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Classical Imperative

There's certainly nothing staid and boring about Houston's cultural scene. No matter which way you turn you're likely to fall over some sort of avant garde/cutting edge production or another.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn recently reported for All Things Considered, the Houston contemporary classical scene is thriving. Groups like Da Camera and Musiqa (and KUHF's own chamber music ensemble), show an on-going commitment to the latest classical compositions.

The same is true in the realm of the non-musical arts also. Look at the Max Ernst in the Garden of Nymph Ancolie exhibit currently on display at the Menil Collection for example, or the Jonah Bokaer The Invention of Minus One presentation this weekend at DiverseWorks.

Something I find intriguing, however, amongst all this "newness" is the strong presence of the "antique." By that I mean art from Classical Antiquity that is blended with contemporary performance values.

Several groups around town have done this recently. Last weekend Divergence Vocal Theater, Houston's newest "opera" company, made its debut with The Ottavia Project, Artistic Director Misha Penton's telling of the story of Octavia, scorned wife of the Roman Emperor Nero, through a fusion of elements from Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) and the tragedy Octavia, often attributed to the 1st century C.E. Roman dramatist Seneca, with dance and music.

The resulting spectacle was a satisfying melding of the old and the new very much in line with DVT's stated vision:

A progressive attitude to repertoire selection, fearless contemporary staging, and an exciting fusion of interdisciplinary arts characterizes our non-traditional approach to classical vocal repertoire. The result: boundary defying performances featuring historic and new opera, art song, solo piano pieces, theater, dance, and multimedia arts.
Not three days earlier I had another such ancient/modern experience at the University of Houston where the School of Theatre & Dance is in the middle of a run of Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's 1996 play (which won her a 2002 Tony Award for best direction0.

As you might guess, Zimmerman's drama is based on the work of the same name by the Roman writer Ovid. The adaptation, with modern twists, of some of the most humorous and heartbreaking myths from the ancient text takes place in and around a large pool, giving the feel of a modern Roman atrium. As the UH PR material for the play states, "A masterpiece of contemporary storytelling, Metamorphoses follows an ensemble cast as they undergo the transformations that define the human experience."

Yet again the ancient and modern are merged in a production firmly rooted in Classical Antiquity.

Back in August Houston's Nova Arts Project presented The Bacchae, a daring adaptation of the Greek tragedy of the same name by Euripides, "written and directed" by Clinton Hopper, the NAP founding artistic director.

I was surprised to see the designation "writer" attributed to Hopper in the program as I assumed the production was the Euripidean version. But what I saw was an adaptation of the Greek tragedy; it is based on Euripides's play but is not a mere staging of it. Hopper had streamlined the action, the characters, the dramatic concerns, and in effect created a version of the original. The new and the old were interwoven.

What are we to make of this seeming trend back to ancient days? Perhaps no more than that the art of Classical Antiquity still has relevance today. The elements that make performances compelling today (inventive storytelling, compelling plots, human insight etc.) have been around for millenia and don't lose their lustre with the passage of time.

Maybe we should also be reminded that not everyone in the first years of the 21st century has necessarily been exposed to earliest texts of the Western cultural tradition; there may be a huge "virgin" audience for these works many of us are very familiar with.

But while these recent productions may harken back to the mists of time, their treatments are thoroughly modern and completely in keeping with Houston's commitment to the cutting edge.

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