Opera's Next Wave
The team of JULIAN CROUCH & PHELIM McDERMOTT
The division of work within the team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch is somewhat fluid. Although Crouch is better known as a designer than his colleague, the men were credited as director (McDermott) and associate director (Crouch) on their two shows at the Metropolitan Opera — their wondrous realization of Philip Glass's Satyagraha (2008) and their lavish staging of an even more ambitious project, the world premiere of The Enchanted Island (2011). However they do it, McDermott and Crouch have figured out the way to astonish and delight an audience; their shows cast a spell that stays with you long after you've left the theater. It would probably be simpler to identify both gentlemen as "magicians" and leave it at that.
McDermott and Crouch came to the Met (and to English National Opera, which coproduced Satyagraha) from the world of the theater. Both men were founders of Improbable, a performance company whose work is centered on an improvisational aesthetic. According to Improbable's website (www.improbable.co.uk), the group's influences range from Pieter Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch to Tex Avery, the Goons and Joan Littlewood. Before Satyagraha, McDermott and Crouch were best known in the U.S. — at least as far as theater aficionados were concerned — for Shockheaded Peter, a phantasmagoric musical (or "junk opera") first seen in England in 1998, which was presented in New York in 1999 and 2005. Shockheaded Peter is an original work — funny, fantastic and sinister in equal measure, and not quite like anything else you've ever seen.
When McDermott and Crouch came to work on Satyagraha, Philip Glass's musical meditation on the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, the opera was nearly thirty years old. First seen in Rotterdam in 1980, Satyagraha presents a daunting set of challenges for anyone who sets out to stage it. The three-act piece does not have a conventional linear narrative; the work not only deals with Gandhi's life and work but holds parallel references to Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, Jr. The text itself, taken from the Bhagavad Gita, is sung in Sanskrit.
McDermott and Crouch's superb staging completely reinvented the physical world of Satyagraha, investing the opera with stunning clarity. Their production was an audacious feat of imagination that realized the hypnotic musical and dramatic force of Glass's work in a purely poetic way. The imagery McDermott and Crouch used — the huge, looming puppet figures, the crackling trail of newspapers, the use of projected images and text — had a richness and scale that took full advantage of the Met's great stage and cavernous auditorium. A few seasons later, McDermott and Crouch worked similar feats of prestidigitation with the Met's world premiere of The Enchanted Island, giving a pasticcio of Baroque music a sly, stylish modern edge by striking the perfect balance between eighteenth-century staging conventions, such as the over-the-top entrance for Plácido Domingo's Neptune, and the modern computer effects that made possible the rapid growth of the leaves and vines on the set's two-dimensional trees.
Whatever McDermott and Crouch's future opera-house plans are, the imaginative authority of their work will remain inspirational and influential. They are artistically fearless — and brilliantly entertaining.
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