Theater for the unfocused mind

Soprano Heather Buck in "Theotokia."
(Joel Simon)

PALO ALTO — We hallucinate. But we are often of two minds about having two minds.

We produce drugs to enhance hallucinations and drugs to dull them. Medical science seeks to relieve schizophrenics of their visions. Religion, on the other hand, sanctifies visionaries. Neurologists hunt for explanations. Art is haunted by the haunted. Where would opera be without its mad scenes and wild fantasies? Where would the Beatles have been without LSD?


Stanford University made an ambitious attempt to bring together much of the above in its new Bing Concert Hall on Friday night with the premiere of “Visitations” — two short chamber operas about hallucinations by faculty composer and neurological researcher Jonathan Berger.

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To begin with, there is the Bing. With its crenulated curved walls, the 842-seat vineyard-style venue’s interior has been described as a little brain-like. Acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and architect Richard Olcott have adapted elements from two of Toyota’s exceptional collaborations with Frank Gehry. The 360-degree layout, which has become a Toyota trademark, began with Walt Disney Concert Hall. Meanwhile, the Bing’s stage is surrounded by large “sails” that serve as screens for projecting images, like those Gehry invented for the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Still, the Bing has its own character, which is that of engulfing the audience, and that might have made it a perfect place for surreal psychic exploration. On Friday, the sound worked well. Singers and a chamber ensemble had striking clarity and presence. A smidgen of surround-sound electronic music played on small overhead speakers was equally effective.

But Berger’s operas are less about the wonder of hallucinations than their torment. In “Theotokia,” which lasts a little over half an hour and was adapted from an earlier song cycle, an institutionalized psychotic called Leon conjures up a Yeti Mother. The longer second opera, “The War Reporter,” reveals the haunting of Canadian journalist Paul Watson by the ghost of a U.S. soldier he photographed being mutilated on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Watson won a Pulitzer Prize for the famous photo and later became a foreign correspondent for the L.A. Times.

In both cases, music’s job here is not to illuminate surrealism by revealing the wonder of hallucinations but to promote correction of torment through psychiatry. We become passive observers of pathos rather than operatic thrill seekers.

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Berger is careful to avoid sentimentality. His music has a sharp, hard edge, and he had the benefit of first-rate players and singers. The small chamber ensemble was built around the St. Lawrence String Quartet and percussionist Steven Schick. The cast was made up of the incandescent four-member early-music ensemble New York Polyphony, along with soprano Heather Buck. Rinde Eckert, an extraordinary performer in his own right, directed. Christopher Rountree (music director of wild Up in Los Angeles) was the dynamic conductor.

Berger uses instruments with more character than he does the voice. And often, the drama was most powerful in the chamber ensemble, particularly in the vivid percussion part.

Even so, the singers were impressive. Buck proved a commanding presence as the Yeti Mother and as one of Paul’s inner voices.

The job of baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, who was Paul in “The War Reporter,” was to overcome some of the sappiness of playwright and poet Dan O’Brien’s schematic text (he wrote the librettos for both operas). To reveal the insecurity of a brave war reporter (all war reporters are brave and probably angst-driven), Paul is shown stumbling through his Pulitzer reception and breaks down when he confronts the brother of the slain soldier. But we don’t get a full brain scan.

I’m not sure whether it helped or not that there were no projected titles of the texts. One word in 20 was intelligible. On top of that, Eckert’s productions themselves were vague (the first set in a mental ward, the second had a stage scattered with debris).

If this was a theater of the unfocused mind to a fault, it was also a missed opportunity. Only one screen was used for fluid video projections by Mark DeChiazza, and these added more poetic sloppiness — except when they were overly quotidian, as in showing a candle burning, or overly scatological when Leon was up to something or other with his bed pan.

Stanford, which has been a pioneer in computer music for more than three decades, could now have the mission, were it to choose it, to become an artistic guiding light for Silicon Valley. The new multimedia hall is made for adventure. But does the institution have the capacity and willingness to commit resources for such adventure, or is that just a hallucination?


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