Beating the drum, The Industry's PR machine foretold "a grotesque historical pageant that disrupts the dominant narrative of American identity." "Starting as a procession," the copywriter went on to say, "Sweet Land becomes an opera that erases itself."
As it turned out, there was nothing the least disruptive about the premise. Just as in 1492, seafarers from afar wash up on a supposedly virgin continent. Then what? Right away, indigenous cultures unravel; over time, the land itself gives up the ghost. We mourn, we turn inward, and so we should. But isn't such heartbreak mainstream now?
Based on eye-witness reportage from LA State Historic Park, Sweet Land was no walk through that blasted urban prairie. And make no mistake, you did have to walk, over right rough terrain. At the core of the opera, there were scenes that ran at the same time, in separate settings. (Of four such sections, real-time viewers saw two, but on video, you can catch them all.) You could attend the show in daylight, or you could attend it at night. You might get rained on. You might get cold.
Diversity reigned with a vengeance. Dueling librettists (one male, one female), dueling composers (ditto), and the director-designer Cannupa Hanska Luger (male) collectively represent the disparate truths and histories of a Chinese immigrant, three Native Americans, and an African American. Among the half-dozen creatives, Sharon, who shares directing credit, stands out as the Black Swan, which in this case is to say the lone white dude.
At the bedrock level of narrative, Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney's libretto poses its share of riddles. Apart from fairly conventional characters, a coyote, a hunting bow, and a drum take leading roles, all played by humans. At a wedding banquet, sinister guests—fugitive Aunts from The Handmaid's Tale?--wear bags over their heads, bang their knives on the table, and browbeat a cowering bride (the radiant soprano Kelci Hahn). An African slave (the cavernous bass Richard Hodges), returns spouting a gospel of rampant greed. The role of a testosterone-fueled outlaw goes to a stentorian countertenor (Scott Belluz), who trades a white cowboy hat in one scene for a black cowboy hat in another. What's going on here? In this shamans' Cirque du Soleil, suspension of judgment yields deeper insights than analysis.
Call it paradox, but the music, by Raven Chacon and Du Yun, communicates more directly. For one brief, shining moment, brass fanfares blend with choral chant in a mellow blaze of gold. Mostly, though, the composers push acoustic extremes with pandemonium for percussion, elephantine boogie woogie, and, at the far end of the spectrum, wind soli and vocalise on the cusp of silence.
Words, music, and theatrical imagery coalesce most hauntingly in the still quarter-hour coda, "Echoes & Expulsions." In the shadow of a rail overpass, outside a makeshift shelter of sheet metal, a child the program calls Speck (Leander Rajan) picks through the grassy wasteland, finding nothing. Voices of the dead, forgotten and dispossessed, waft through the night air, remembering. "I understand now," one lost soul sings, in what may be a subliminal echo of all-knowing Brünnhilde of the Götterdämmerung finale. "I understand."
"No Sweet Land here," sings another in her solitude.
A coyote howls.
Speck buries his head in a shopping bag.
Slow, slow fade.