New Music Connoisseur, Spring/Summer 2008
MAN: BIOLOGY OF A FALL
BY EVAN HAUSE
OCTOBER 4-7, 2007, at the Kumble Center for the Performing Arts, Brooklyn
Review by Theodore Wiprud
Evan Hause is an increasingly visible composer of theatrical flair, given to intriguing by-ways of modern history. Forget Nixon in China - Hause writes operas of political intrigue, espionage, and defenestration: someone always goes out the window. Hause's imagination encompasses an encyclopedia of period popular styles and expressionistic gesture; much as another composer might use harmony to express emotion, Hause's idiom can turn on a dime when a character jokes, insinuates, or opines. His small orchestras call to mind Pierrot Lunaire, or Mahagonny, or the Lounge Lizards.
All this was on thrilling display in the premiere of the third installment of Hause's Defenestration Trilogy, Man: Biology of a Fall. The libretto, by Gary Heidt, fictionalizes the disturbing case of Frank Olson, a US government scientist who grew uneasy with his research into mind-altering drugs and biological warfare. Taken into psychiatric care, he inexplicably fell to his death from a hotel window in Manhattan in 1953. (Olson's story is a focus on the Jon Ronson book The Men Who Stare at Goats, a study of bizarre military research ultimately connected with Abu Ghraib.) Hause characterizes his rogue's gallery of scientists and thugs vividly - Olson's music progressing from patriotism to disorientation; other scientists joking about their deadly research; Olson's wife, worrying at home; a sadistic character based on the actual CIA operative George White. The piece includes significant electronic atmospherics, only partially realized at the premiere, but now integrated effectively in a demo CD.
The performances on October 4-7 took place at the little-known but inviting Kumble Center for the Performing Arts on the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, close by the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jyana Gregory directed imaginatively, working around a single large set piece that rotated to become a prison cell, a disco, or an office. The composer conducted an ensemble of able free-lancers. While not all the vocal performances were equally outstanding, Steven Ebel as Frank Olson was ever inventive with his enormous role, almost always on stage. Mark Peters was terrifying as George White. San-ky Kim was a suitably mysterious superior.Man: Biology of a Fall was ably produced by Hause himself. Despite marketing from the Kumble Center, the work did not reach the broad audience that could embrace it. A new production of this ambitious but affordable three-act work, or a chance to hear Hause's other Defenestration operas, would do any opera company proud.
Theodore Wiprud is a composer and educator currently serving as Director of Education at the New York Philharmonic.