Review

WikiLeaks at the Opera: What Chelsea Manning-inspired music says about government secrets

After watching Wednesday’s dispiriting presidential debate at my desk at The Times, I walked up Bunker Hill to REDCAT to see what Los Angeles Opera had to say about an essential topic not fully explored: How the candidates will deal with the Information Age.

What does any of this have to do with opera? In composer Ted Hearne’s startlingly important “The Source,” receiving its West Coast premiere as part of L.A. Opera’s “Off Grand” series of experimental work, the answer is everything. For instance, Chris Wallace did not ask, as “The Source” does outright: “Do you feel any state — any government — has a right to any secrets at all?” 

“The Source” depends on WikiLeaks. Its subject matter is leaks and leaker Chelsea Manning, whose plight could well have been ripped from a tragic opera playbook. In 2010, an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq who at the time went by the name Bradley Manning released three-quarters of a million classified documents to WikiLeaks, including the so-called “Collateral Murder” video, showing American helicopters firing on Iraqi civilians and Reuters reporters.

Bradley Manning later became Chelsea. After being turned in by a hacker, she is serving a 35-year sentence in prison and has been subjected to solitary confinement as punishment for a suicide attempt. 

Using source material from WikiLeaks and emails between Manning and Adrian Lamo, the hacker, librettist Mark Doten sifted through unmanageable masses of information in a way the news media and politicians haven’t: as poetry. All the while he reminds us where this material came from and its broad implications, human and social.

The score is structured as a CD-length collection of 12 songs for four singers and seven instrumentalists. Everything is amplified, and electronic sound processing and sampling are part of the mix. Hearne has said his goal was 21st century oratorio. The REDCAT staging, created for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, is closer to video installation. The audience sits on folding chairs, facing in different directions, surrounded by four large video screens showing close-ups of people watching.  

Texts and musical styles vary widely. A four-word phrase using Army jargon for warships — “smoke when bird nears” — becomes lyrical refrain, undercut by fragments of Dinah Washington singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  Dispassionate reports of explosive hazards and criminal events are chanted, with voices electronically altered to sound half human and half machine. The result is chillingly effective.

There are passionate outbursts too, of Manning confronting insecurities about sexuality and about the responsibility felt to release sensitive material. Manning humanizes the right to know and objectifies the right to be.

Hearne’s score is a rich, eclectic mix, making the work not only about how we deal with too much leaked material but also with too much music out there. Most of the time, the extraneous sampled bits of rap and other music offer useful atmosphere. Now and then Hearne has more than he needs. I found the snippet from “The Bachelorette” amusingly apt when first heard on the CD of the music, but on repetition, it quickly became tiresome.

Hearne’s own music, however, is continually satisfying. The ensemble — violin, viola, cello, guitar, bass, drums and keyboard — can get raucous, but when intimate, it has the power to pull deep expression out of motley source material. The singers — Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson and Jonathan Woody — sit among the audience and are wonderful.

The audience has its own not easy mission, which is to get past Daniel Fish’s production. We watch grim faces on-screen who look like a well-planned cross-section of multicultural, multi-everything Brooklynites — the unpretentious and the hip, the lady with the Corona beer-cap earrings and the Hassidic Jew with yarmulke, etc., etc. The sound design further mucks up the material. Solo voices and instruments are vivid, but there is poor directionality, which means that the singers who sit among us don’t sound like they sit among us, so what’s the point? When the volume goes up, muck sets in, most likely because the production chose not to take advantage of REDCAT’s driest acoustical setup.

The production ends with a long excerpt from the “Collateral Murder” video. It provides justification for the watchers on-screen (turns out that is what they were reacting to) and for Manning. Trigger warning: It is horrifying to watch trigger-happy troops.

But here “Collateral Murder” is theatrical collateral murder. “The Source” takes its power from music and text. Its relevance is the poetic pondering of the universal implications of information and what it can do to us.  Used as the climax to the production, the revelation of “Collateral Murder” makes “The Source” an opera about the propriety of the Iraq war.

The opera itself makes vivid the confusing yet crucial bigger picture of how we handle, and how free we are to handle, information — a subject our leaders do their best to avoid.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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