Opera review: ‘Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands’ in a vacant car dealership

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The title, “Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands,” is not especially imaginative for an ambitious, possibly groundbreaking new opera. The protagonists are an ordinary Tom and Sue. He was once a private in the Army and she dropped out of college.

They, like couples in “The Magic Flute” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” like Dorothy and Alice and so many others in stories of Oz and wonderlands, enter a dream world, and return spiritually whole, knowing self and maybe love. But some dreams are bigger and nuttier than others, some in color, and this one is more extravagantly surreal than most and must have been a logistical nightmare to produce.


The opera, which had its premiere in a marvelously dilapidated vacant Culver City car dealership Thursday night, no doubt needed a generic idea and characters to accommodate director (and choreographer and composer and librettist and impresario) O-Lan Jones’ ambitious idea of incorporating the work of 11 composers and 21 librettists into a mixed and mixed-up media performance art extravaganza. The 25,000-foot space is divided into 21 performance areas, or goofy imaginary lands, and the audience travels to them either on a train (a funky collection of carts with benches, slowly towed) or, if you opt for the cheaper seats, by picking up your folding chair and traipsing behind the train.

Given its cache of collaborators -- if all of them were present Thursday, they may have filled nearly half the performance space (which can accommodate up to 200) – the opera gets its integrity not from music and text but through visual and directorial concept, and most of all in its ingenious use of movement. And, of course, in its sincere adherence to the “Pledge of Adhesion” (the 26th of the show’s 38 numbers), in which the pursuit of shallow thoughts and silly talk are among the rights of the citizens of Limbo.

It begins thus. On a film clip, Tom (Jason Adams) and Sue (Jamey Hood) enter a Social Services Office. They’ve lost their identity and off they, and we, go in search of the ineffable. I chose to be a plebeian chair person, which is more fun (if you don’t mind the constant up and down or the sense of being herded).

The lands are, for the most part, outlandish, built by set and costume designer Snezana Petrovic from junk. The costumes, though painterly (think poor-man’s Achim Freyer) are often childish, but Petrovic’s extravagantly quirky installation-art sculptures, enticingly and inventively lit by Dan Reed, do, indeed, transform the dealership into a realm of its own.

Along with Tom and Sue is a company of 18 singers/dancers/actors and a seven-member instrumental ensemble, conducted, with a drumstick for a baton, by David O. And to go with the violin, cello, bass, piano, clarinet, guitar and keyboard, one of the composers, Bart Hopkin, had invented appealingly desiccated junk percussion.

Everyone is ever on the move. You arrive in a land. A group of goon-like, Monty Python-esque, caveman-ish “pus monkeys” stand on a funny sort of mountain. They wear leaf-strewed jackets. They thump on about going to the swamp, to the forest or the river, and a singer named Cucaruso (I think it was). And then, before you know it, you are off again.


Around every corner is something new. I’m not sure how the musicians get there first, or where or how the cast is able to make its costume changes. The space feels ever fluid. Dancers (choreographed by Nina Winthrop) sometimes lead the way, but in the crush and complexity of our travels, they are usually enticingly seen in the corner of your eye. It felt disorienting more often than not.

Numbers do after a while become numbingly weird. There is a range from absurdity and parody to sentimentality, but not a wide one. The music has elements of Broadway, pseudo-opera, pop, New Age and Minimalism in various combinations. A lot is asked of Tom and Sue, including straight acting and singing in any number of styles, and Adams and Hood pull off most of it (if not always on pitch). The good-natured, hard-working ensemble is anything if not versatile.

The ending is a little corny, perhaps, but after nearly three daft hours, refreshingly so. Tom and Sue, having gone through their trials, have a mystical kiss and realize that they don’t need to be anything more than themselves, just a vet and a dropout. The music for “The Kiss,” by David O, and the communal finale, “The Land with the Answer for Everything,” with words and music by Jones, made me wish that they had written the whole shebang themselves.

Then again, maybe the next big-thing operatic suspension of disbelief is to put the trust less in song than in the art of the impresario. O-Lan Jones has gotten a lot of talented people to do a lot of disarming things on a grand scale.

-- Mark Swed

‘Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands,’ 8810 Washington St., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 18. $25 to $50. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.


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