Since the late 16th Century, it’s been called opera. But these days, says Frederic Rzewski, the marriage of serious music and theater not only needs a new name, it needs a major overhaul.

“Right now, we may be at a turning point in musical theater. We must invent a new form,” he insists.

“I’m getting away from using the term opera, “ the Massachusetts-born composer says. “I just don’t feel close to the operatic tradition.”


Rzewski (pronounced ZHEV-skee) has come up with one possible alternative, combining something old, something new and something borrowed. On Monday at the Bing Theater of the L.A. County Art Museum, he will serve as pianist in a rare performance of his full-length “Antigone-Legend” (1982).

The original source is “Antigone,” Sophocles’ ancient tale depicting the conflict between the individual and the state. Yet the text is borrowed from Bertolt Brecht--not his play of the same name, but a 200-line poem he wished to be read by the stage manager to the cast prior to each performance.

What’s “new” here is the presence of performance artist Bernhard Batschelet, who will interpret the music provided by Rzewski and soprano Carol Plantamura. “He’s not really a mime,” the composer says of Batschelet. “There’s no word for it--he’s a visual artist, I suppose. He uses simple objects, plus some things he’ll incorporate from around the theater itself, to create a sort of abstract, fluid sculpture on-stage.”

Though known primarily through his purely instrumental works--notably the set of piano variations bearing the stirring title, “The People United Will Never Be Divided"--the 48-year-old composer says he has found himself fascinated by music with a narrative text.

“Lately, I’ve been doing more and more,” he notes. “I recently did a piece based on Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ for a cast of 20, each role doubled, with a singer and actor singing and acting simultaneously. Some people call it opera, but I don’t.”

While dismissing others’ preoccupation with labeling his work, Rzewski likewise shrugs off this recent fascination with Greek drama: “This is what interests me. I don’t claim to have dibs on what is best for everybody.”

What interests him, he points out, is the manner in which these ancient sagas represent the expansion of the age-old art of storytelling. “In the time of Homer, or whoever, the narrator would combine elements of rudimentary theater. That’s why I chose Brecht’s poem. It’s in dactyllic hexameter, which is the Homeric structure.

“Brecht tried to re-create the Antigone legend before it got into the hands of the professional poets (such as Sophocles). Brecht just tells the story, much the way they did in Greece during the 7th Century B.C.”

As Rzewski points out, this approach to storytelling thrives today--beyond his own explorations. “In Sicily and Yugoslavia, you still have roving professional poets who accompany their tales with simple comic-strip images.”

The difference here, of course, is that the composer is removed from the role of storyteller. That he leaves to Plantamura (singing an English translation) and Batschelet. Rzewski didn’t even specify any stage business: “Bernhard and I only discussed general principals. I didn’t want to get involved because I don’t trust my own judgments.”

Rzewski, Plantamura and Batschelet have taken “Antigone-Legend” on a mini-tour across the country. Each run-through has been a little different, the composer notes, because Batschelet changes props continuously.

How have the performances been going? “I’ve never seen the show,” Rzewski replies with a chuckle. “I’m in it. I can’t watch because I’m just too occupied playing all the notes.”