Happy is the man who hears/The helicopter beat its wings/The sky goes black with flying things/For him it sings,/It’s only music, music.” So sings the Iraqi insurgent cabbie (tenor Mark Hernandez as Omar), as he sets out an Improvised Explosive Device in Lisa Scola Prosek’s one act opera, Trap Door, playing tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in The Lab, 16th St. near Mission in San Francisco.
As soon as his IED explodes, there’s an American television journalist on the scene (soprano Bianca Showalter as Jane), exclaiming “I don’t know yet/Just what to think/I will reserve my judgment/Who’s in the right/Who’s in the fight/What should I wear/Have they finished my hair?/Can’t even sleep with this terrible heat”—shifting gears into the collective (or imperial) first person for her interview: “We’d like to know, we’d like to learn/we’re deeply concerned/We don’t know just what to think/Will you please tell America/Why you blow up these bombs here everyday!”
(And Omar, mistaking her for a U.S. official, asks for a visa to New Jersey—“Out on the coastline”—where his cousin has a few taxis: “He’s always been my favorite cousin.”)
Prosek, who plays piano in the accompanying chamber group under the direction of Martha Stoddard—with Michel Taddei on double bass; Eduard Prosek (the composer’s son), trumpet; Katrina Wreede, viola; Beth Snelling, cello; and Phil Freihofer on oboe—has fashioned an opera from a very particular contemporary sense of both traditional vocal styles (especially Bel Canto) and modern music (among others, she’s studied with Milton Babbitt and Lukas Foss). Her own libretto, taken from images and lines out of a dream, reflects the deeply satiric tradition of her native Rome—ever allusive, ever ironic. Trap Door is a rare, even unique entry among the performed works that have answered to the ongoing war in the Middle East.
The story, however, is crystal clear, a series of episodes, of tableaux that picture events around Pvt. Able (the splendid baritone and stoic presence of Clifton Romig), following him through a tour of duty, looping back from his questioning in a court martial for killing a civilian (by soprano Eliza O’Malley as the prosecutor, as the chorus scribbles on clipboards); to going to boot camp, then leaving the wives and mothers for deployment; to declaring love to a Laundry Lady (soprano Maria Mikheyenko as Ashley) who spurns him because her Independent Contractor boss (baritone James McGoff) makes so much more than the soldiers; to being wounded on patrol and having morphine dreams in the hospital; to facing off with the enemy in combat; to taking part in an interlude of gospel choir music for a TV music video, and finally, after an incident in the burning heat and flashing light where he shoots an unarmed man, being sent home “to face the music.”
Making this an opera in the truest sense—a collection of “works” in different media, fused together—are the collaborators: Jim Cave’s remarkable stage direction, that often has the disarming clarity, yet dissociation, of a dream; and Jacob Kalousek’s “soft” scenography: projected video that saturates each scene, more than background for singers acting—more like water for fish to swim in. And the performers swim indeed, singing and often changing roles, borne along by the ever-fluid rhythms and harmonies of Prosek’s score.
Not singing, or speaking, but a wonderful presence from the start—when he strolls out with a tiny Igloo cooler, glances at his watch, opens the ragged curtain, ushers the cast onstage—Roham Shaikani, a longtime Jim Cave collaborator (as well as with Shotgun Players and Darvag Theatre Co.), eloquently interacts with the ensemble, or looks on, observing.
Much the same troupe produced Scola’s opera of Machiavelli’s delightfully sardonic Belfagor at Thick House a year ago, but this original is even better: compact, perfectly delineated, yet haunting, with the fleeting sense of a mirage, an apparition, the afterimage of what was or might have been: “And what you reach for slips away/And what you hold you do not want/And then it comes again, you hear the music, music.”