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The Talk of the Town?

Kristin Hohenadel writes on arts and culture

It was a lifetime of slavish devotion to the almighty tube that led Mikel Rouse to his divine revelation. The New York-based composer had long been ruminating about our search for “salvation” through celebrity worship, media confessionals and the mass marketing of popular culture. Wanting to find a vehicle to use music and lyrics to explore those ideas, he’d begun to compose some melodies and was singing them one day to himself in Central Park, when the epiphany descended: Why not make his next opera in the likeness of a TV talk show?

“Hey, man, did you ever see the Richard Bey show?” Rouse, 42, asked one recent afternoon in L.A. “That was the craziest talk show that ever existed. He was really a precursor to Jerry Springer, but he was much crazier. There was a moment in the late ‘80s or ‘90s when the talk shows were really doing what could only be called avant-garde theater. Karen Finley was doing it for 200 people at the Kitchen, and these people were doing it for a million people. And not your artistic types, but a guy in Iowa. So this was a very populist idea. I saw it as avant-garde theater for the people.”

The result is “Dennis Cleveland,” a multimedia opera that premiered at New York City’s the Kitchen in 1996 and travels to Orange County, starting Tuesday, as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.

Rouse had long been interested in crafting music that combined an accessible beat and melody with extravagantly layered formal composition. A talk-show-cum-opera could work the same way: combining the lure of an ostensibly simple and familiar form with, potentially, grand opera theatricality and even social comment.

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The title, he says, came to him in a dream. Naming his work after a character has many operatic precedents--Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” for example--but in his case, the particular name would also embody his desire to make “real opera for real people,” he says. "[Dennis Cleveland]--it’s innocuous, it’s Midwestern, it’s simple.”

Rouse acknowledges that using a talk show as a model was a risk for a card-carrying member of the avant-garde. But critics called the idea inspired and praised the execution. The Village Voice, for one, called Rouse “the premiere innovator in the radical restaging of opera.”

“Rouse’s music can be as tensile as minimalism, as sensuous as good disco, and as uncanny as velvet rap,” the Voice continued. “ ‘Dennis Cleveland’ meets the ‘American Bandstand’ definition of a hit: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But it also unfolds like a real opera.”

Another Voice writer put it in a larger context: “No goal has been dearer to composers born in the 1950s than to fuse the intellectual with the physical, to melt down all those complex procedures their teachers taught them and reforge them into art that enchants and engrosses and entertains people in human and emotional, not merely technical, terms. A piece that achieved that goal any more fully than ‘Dennis Cleveland’ would probably scare people to death.”

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The highest accolade might be one that didn’t come from the critics, though. By the end of its brief run, there were scalpers outside the Kitchen selling tickets, a rare occurrence at a downtown production.

In the three years since, there has been talk of an off-Broadway opening and a film; neither has so far materialized. But Eclectic Orange Festival director Dean Corey, head of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, kept his eye on “Dennis Cleveland,” waiting for an opportunity to present it. Its sophisticated musical content, wrapped in mass entertainment values, made it the kind of piece that Corey believes can foster a taste for the new and unusual, which he says is still a hard sell in Orange County.

“It looks a bit loose and free,” Corey says. “It’s very accessible and appealing, but he’s worked [the music] out quite formally.”

Rouse directs “Dennis Cleveland” and stars in the title role, as well as writing the music and libretto. During the show, he wanders the stage, reading from cue cards and soliciting “confessions” from actors and singers planted among the audience. The audience--not sure of what is real and what is orchestrated (seemingly spontaneous in parts, the work is in fact carefully scripted)--sits beneath the glare of studio lights and watches Cleveland and close-ups of their own reactions via TV monitors, as if they were in a real talk-show audience. A chorus populates the stage, and prerecorded music and samplings from real talk shows are broadcast over loudspeakers.

Doesn’t the audience resent the blurred lines, the aura of participation, their implied complicity in the proceedings?

Rouse doesn’t think so. “If it was just a parody, then that could be aggressive,” he responds. “You are really getting a lot of information; no one goes away feeling just used. The biggest compliments I got--and [from the] hard-core avant-garde, used to hearing like screeching sounds for three hours--said this is the most entertaining thing I’ve ever gone to in New York avant-garde theater, and it was the most disturbing.”

As the piece progresses, the talk-show illusion unravels, and it becomes clear that the seemingly unrelated confessions about love, sex, identity and the meaning of life actually add up to a bleak summary of Cleveland himself. In the commentary are some searing indictments of mass culture and the vapid collective memory made by television. But Rouse insists that he isn’t judging the role of television in our lives, just looking to illuminate it.

“I think it’s an American experience,” he says. “A lot of people write operas about things they don’t really understand. I can say I live it. The work I’m doing is not divorced from who I am.”

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Lest we think him a couch potato, it should be pointed out that at least some of the time, television for Rouse is background music.

“When I first moved to New York,” he says, “people would think I was insane, they’d come by and I’d have a television on, a radio on and I’d be writing music.”

Watching him hold court on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the courtyard of the Del Capri Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near UCLA, it’s not hard to imagine this scenario. There is something positively interactive about Rouse as he seems to carry on several conversations at once, interrupting everyone in sight, pursuing a runaway enthusiasm for any number of eagerly delivered opinions, anecdotes or lively observations. Tall, pale and dressed in all black, he has an exhausted look--dark circles, a weariness in his ever-furrowed brow--the perfect ironic counterpoint to his boundless energy.

Despite what he says, Rouse’s childhood was not pure TV extravaganza. There was a time, during what he describes as “a very boring childhood in the rural South and Midwest,” when he used to jump from a moving horse to a moving train just for fun. And there was evidence of a budding aesthete: “You go through a pretentious phase when you’re in like third grade,” he says, “and everyone called me Mike but I wanted to be called Michael.” But he was puzzled by the phonetics of his first name, so he decided to start spelling it the way it sounded: Mike. L. Mike-L. Mikel.

“Then I went through this other pretentious phrase where I would sign all my drawings with this kind of art nouveau lettering style, and that’s when I realized that Mikel looked really cool in print.” So he kept it.

He studied art, music and filmmaking in Kansas City, Mo., and after college moved to New York, where he pursued composing. He formed a contemporary chamber ensemble called Mikel Rouse Broken Consort and began to get some pieces recorded. In 1987, choreographer Ulysses Dove used one of his works as a score to “Vespers” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

From the start as a composer, he went for the mix, which placed him in a genre called Totalism in New York. “Musically, I always was in a dilemma,” he says, “because I grew up hearing rock ‘n’ roll and country and western, and jazz and that’s the music I loved. But of course [in college] you get to hear the Western canon, the European music, not to mention world music; you get this whole vocabulary, and then you have to negotiate your place in that world.”

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It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, he says, that he began developing the distinctive compositional style he calls counter-poetry--in which sung or spoken voices are latticed in intricate, echoing, rhythmic patterns. He unveiled it in “Failing Kansas,” his first opera, which was inspired by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

“I was very interested in American speech, and English always sounds dopey in opera,” he says. “I wanted to know why it doesn’t sound dopey in the hands of Stephen Sondheim or Robert Ashley or the Beatles?”

So he began experimenting. “I knew that I was onto something because I didn’t like it,” he says. “I had to force myself to understand it because it wasn’t pleasing. You’d like to think that maybe five times in your life you can reach a new place.”

But he kept working on it. In “Failing Kansas,” Rouse played all the parts in addition to writing the music and assembling the libretto from court documents and reported interviews about the famous murder case. But in “Dennis Cleveland,” the second in a planned trilogy of operas, he wrote the libretto himself and composed a more complex score that can accommodate as many as 30 roles.

He emphasizes that he has struggled to keep his music accessible. “Any artist worth his salt--no matter how adventurous or far ahead his work was--the bottom line was that he was communicating with people. It wasn’t this ivory tower stuff where, ‘Oh, 20 people understand my stuff because it’s so intellectual.’ I mean that’s boring to me. I want to participate with an audience, not alienate an audience.”

The last piece in his trilogy, “The End of Cinematics,” about corporate-driven entertainment, will premiere in fall 2001. He is once again fielding interest in a movie version of “Dennis Cleveland.” And he is hoping that after the Southern California run and another in Philadelphia next spring that “Dennis Cleveland” will tour North America and Europe.

Rouse says that he is ever more convinced that making use of multimedia in presenting opera is the way to reach today’s audiences.

“I guarantee I walk out on the street and stick a mike in someone’s face and they’ll know what to do,” he says. “That puts us, I think, in a very unique position that I don’t think society’s been in before. There’s people who go to college, and there are people who live in trailer courts, but there is a comparison to where they are because of media. There’s kind of a chance that we’re all catching up with each other.”

But is a culture united by Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer a step forward for humanity? Maybe not, he acknowledges, but he prefers to dwell on the transformative potential of art.

“Take a movie like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ” he says. “There’s nothing really hopeful that you could say about that, but it’s through the craft of what Scorsese accomplished in that film that you walk out feeling elated--and hopeful because you know there are fellow human beings roaming the earth that could put that information together. And you don’t have to be an artist to recognize that, because that movie captured the imaginations of a lot of people who weren’t artists.”

In creating an operatic reflection of the TV wasteland, Rouse thinks “Dennis Cleveland” can have its own kind of saving grace.

“Obviously there’s social critique going on in [it],” he admits. “But I’m more interested in finding out why [talk shows] fulfill a need in society. I really believe [“Dennis Cleveland’s”] redemption and its higher level comes through music. It’s the music that makes it hopeful.”

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“Dennis Cleveland,” Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, $25. (949) 553-2422.


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