So began Roulette’s recent production of Robert Ashley’s 1987 opera eL/Aficionado, in which three interrogators, presumably the Agent’s colleagues in “the service,” question her about her training in intelligence work and her early assignments. (The run of performances in late October coincided with the release of a CD imprint, recorded with the Roulette cast at Ashley’s studio in July.) Ashley, who died in 2014, was an unconventional composer whose works are animated by the belief that unedited speech is itself a form of music. The influence of that conviction was evident throughout this performance, where conversation was rendered as an antiphonal exchange, and Butcher’s vibrato emphasized the cautious tone of her descriptions.
Though Ashley composed the opera as a stand-alone, he later folded it into a series of works, the “Now Eleanor’s Idea” tetralogy (1985–94), each of which addresses a belief system at the root of American consciousness—in the case of eL/Aficionado, that of “corporate mysticism.” eL/Aficionado captures the fearful likeness of espionage and capitalist enterprise, not only through the business-casual attire and overstated hierarchies but also with hints at Cold War politics, specifically the United States’ business-motivated interventions in Latin America. Continuing this emphasis on commerce, the Agent’s sung report is interspersed with the language of print advertising, from personal ads to real estate listings, which, we are led to believe, constitute a code describing the people and places that the Agent observes. However, in keeping with mystical arcana, this code remains opaque to the audience—and, it turns out, to the characters as well.
The opera’s narrative is Kafkaesque—labyrinthine and structured around ambiguously purposeful assignments undertaken “to satisfy a mysterious auditor.” Only ever given a partial portrait of the task at hand, the Agent’s perspective—like that of the capitalist subject—is fragmentary and alienated. Delivering ornamented lines that exhibit her vocal range, Butcher nonetheless performed with a sense of realism and sincerity that emerged in nervous adjustments of hair, pursing of lips, and shuffling of papers—the tics and twitches that one might expect of someone in a job interview or on trial. By contrast, her interrogators’ actions were stylized, their more recitative lines drawled with an ironic twang; at several junctures, the two interrogators seated on the same level (soprano Bonnie Lander and vocalist Paul Pinto) looked at each other, hands over microphones, and nodded simultaneously in a caricature of sinister resolve. At other moments, they performed almost like automatons—Lander’s voice in the penultimate scene fell into a monotone that alternated between drone and staccato.
Recurrent in the Agent’s statements about past events was the subject of memory. The Agent was persistently challenged to recall experiences, to take a second look. (“You teach yourself to do that. It is a form of cleaning up your memory. That last look. In case anyone should ask,” she explains.) The opera also looks back in another sense, containing references to earlier Ashley works such as the 1975 installation and performance Over the Telephone (explicitly described in eL/Aficionado’s sixth scene) and the 1968 opera The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer and Unknown Accomplices for Crimes Against Humanity, which deal with remote surveillance and cross-examination, respectively. In this tracing and retracing of events, Ashley’s Agent (perhaps like Ashley himself) expresses a desire to perceive meaning in her experiences, though their significance repeatedly evades her. The surreal and inconclusive narrative of eL/Aficionado mirrors the unresolved nature of real life. As philosopher Lydia Goehr has observed, the true violence of crime shows lies not in gruesome images or suspense but in the pretense of resolution—that the crime is always solved, that justice prevails. This is perhaps the intent behind the opera’s rueful last line: “I learned long ago that there is never any news.”