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Fusing Imagery, Music and Words

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) is Intriguing, Provocative Theater.

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A grand exercise in communion. A daring exploration of identity and beauty through music, words, images and videos. A challenging, confounding multidisciplinary theatrical work. These phrases and more apply to Triptych.

Arriving in a Cal Performances co-commission, the Bay Area premiere at Zellerbach Hall presents a volatile tapestry combining artist Robert Mapplethorpe's incendiary and breathtaking photographs; a mesmerizing score by Bryce Dessner; bold libretto by korde arrington tuttle; Carlos Soto's sensual, subtle designs; and sensitive direction by Kaneza Schaal. Among the performers are Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, actor Isaiah Robinson, and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Tuttle's libretto includes the poetry of Mapplethorpe's close companion, Patti Smith, and writings of Essex Hemphill, a chronicler of the African-American gay community during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989 at age 42 of complications from HIV/AIDS, was an American photographer whose black and white photos of celebrities, flowers, still lives, and male and female nudes included erotic imagery. A show of his work planned at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and supported by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, aroused a firestorm of controversy and national debates on censorship and obscenity. In a July 1989 reaction specifically aimed at Mapplethorpe's photos depicting New York's gay BDSM leather scene, Sen. Jessie Helms proposed to restrict NEA funding, saying, "My amendment would prevent the NEA from funding such immoral trash in the future." But conservatives weren't the only ones to find fault with Mapplethorpe's photography. Among his other critics was Black gay poet and essayist Essex Hemphill. In his essay, "Does Your Momma Know About Me," and other works, Hemphill accused the photographer of objectifying black gay men.

Tuttle, in creating a libretto with enough architectural complexity to accommodate the language of Smith, Hemphill and himself, worked much like the poet he is; compiling vast amounts of text before whittling it down to essentials. Displayed in supertitles, the libretto casts a wide net, including references to a 1990 Cincinnati obscenity trial brought the year following his death in reaction to Mapplethorpe's most controversial photos. That trial, along with Sen. Jesse Helms' ongoing quest to eliminate the NEA, arguably caused Mapplethorpe to become vastly more famous than the photographer would have been based on his artwork alone.

"Because Triptych invites audience members on a journey of unusual interiority, discomfort arises," tuttle wrote via email responding to a question about the supertitles. "Especially for American audiences, Hemphill + Mapplethorpe's work continues to strike a nerve. We aren't used to being asked to turn inward in the ways eye believe our piece does. Throughout the show, with the knowledge that certain vulnerabilities may be exposed, it's nice for limitations around literacy + basic comprehension to not (necessarily) be among the most glaring."

In a process he says was both distillation and expansion, tuttle said he set aside his personal thoughts about the images' histories and "mythologies." The need for emotional and intellectual cohesion in the nonlinear libretto, he said, informed the text he created and the way it interweaved the words of Smith and Hemphill. Addressing the dichotomy of the Black models simultaneously celebrated and exploited in Mapplethorpe's portraits — which caused Hemphill to write critically about the images — tuttle let history take the lead.

"Eye allow history to inform my understanding of deeply embedded cultural phenomena, like exploitation, sexual violence + race-based discrimination," tuttle wrote. "Yes, eye do share hemphill's opinion. While it's easy for me to answer 'yes' to that question, the reality of the situation is markedly complex. The architecture of the libretto serves this complexity by shifting point-of-view + ultimately, allowing Hemphill + Mapplethorpe's models to speak for themselves."

There are a lot of heavyweights on stage when the 70-minute work opens with Roomful of Teeth's expanding harmonies in Dessner's poignant reworking of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi's sixth book of songs relating to a poem about grief for a dead lover, Incenerite spoglie (Ashes of my beloved).

The score embraces a panoply of genres: gospel, spirituals, yodeling, spoken word, Appalachian folk songs, Tuvan throat singing, rock-like anthems, drone-like minimalism, multi-part and close harmonies, and more. The work is scored for vocal ensemble, string trio, bass clarinet, horn, piano, expanded percussion, and electric guitar.

Dessner said the pacing and rhythms of tuttle's libretto informed his musical choices. "Having set a lot of poetry to music during my early forties, I am passionate about the language." Beyond the libretto's poetry and its many iterations as the collaboration with tuttle progressed, Dessner said his thoughts turned to the images. In Mapplethorpe's elegiac photographs he saw the influence of the classical beauty of Renaissance and Mannerist paintings of Caravaggio. "The first section is a musical analog to that."

Other idioms Dessner explored are infused with raw, elemental, visceral responses caused by viewing Mapplethorpe's alluring, sometimes erotic, people portraits and images of flowers. "I grew up as a teenager in Cincinnati and the trial there was an awakening for me," Dessner said. "The AIDS epidemic, censorship ... I can trace my life as an artist to that moment."

The third section showcases a poem Hemphill wrote to Mapplethorpe. "It's quite critical, intense. The music becomes more conversational. The final Essex poem I set with a full-hearted, choral, anthemic feel. You can read his work as speaking specifically to the African American gay community in the 80s, the oppression and beauty they were feeling, and yet in a broader sense, he's a voice for a whole generation. There's a hopefulness and power and inevitability in the words that explode off the page. It becomes his piece in the end. It was an honor to have Robert's images — and Essex's words that have a sacred quality to them."

The photos, now over 30 years old, certainly mean something different in 2019 than they did in the past. For Dessner, having delved into Mapplethorpe's archives, fresh perspective resulted. "During the years of working on Triptych, it was a wakeup call that not much has changed in our politics. It feels like we're daily pulled back. We're dealing with the same objectification and identity issues and the deep dark corners of the way we exist with people of different backgrounds, color, and gender. I think Robert would have liked that Triptych was an education, almost a religious awakening for me. It was communion working with korde, the singers, and everyone involved. It was a form for all of us to engage with one another in ways that were surprising, frustrating and beautiful."

Dessner says he has never seen stronger audience reactions to his work than responses he sees to Triptych. "There has been audible sobbing. There's an emotional core, seeing these singers facing you along with profoundly, heartbreaking images. It's kind of a minefield, provoking different responses. It has an intensity, although I'm not telling anyone they have to like it, but it has a power to it."

Sep. 28, $30-68, 8 p.m., Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana St., 510-642-9988, CalPerformances.org. Cal Performances director of Artistic Literacy Sabrina Klein will moderate a panel discussion on making meaning from the marriage of new music, performance, and imagery. Panelists will include librettist korde arrington tuttle, conceptual artist and UC Berkeley professor of photography Liz Linden, and musician and scholar of sound and meaning Serena Le. Sep. 28, 5 p.m., Durham Studio, Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley.

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