Opera Review: IPSA DIXIT (Long Beach Opera and Martha Graham Dance Company)

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by Nick McCall on June 12, 2024

in Dance,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Last week, Long Beach Opera concluded the west coast premiere of its new production of Kate Soper’s 2016 lecture with musical notes, Ipsa Dixit, self-described in the program as “an artistic revelation,” “profound,” “bold,” and “mesmerizing.” Smart critics lavished praise on previous productions of it. It got nominated for a Pulitzer. Therefore, it must be so.

For all you fellow rubes, “ipsa dixit” is not an over-educated person’s attempt at whimsy, but Latin for “She, herself, said it.” In practical terms, it refers to an unsupported argument from a position of authority.

Anna Schubert and Sidney Hopson

The show begins having already started upon entering the theater. Two dancers, Anne Souder and Leslie Andrea Williams, are stretching on a temporary stage in the middle of the auditorium. They then go into a bit of staged rehearsal. However, when the audience chatter died and began to pay attention to them, one of them told us that the show still hadn’t started. It was not convincing and the audience continued to focus on them.

Rachel Beetz, Mona Tian, Anna Schubert, Sidney Hopson

Anna Schubert plays another nameless “Soprano,” as in LBO’s last production Isola, and begins the show by asking, “What is art?” Then blathers about who-knows-what for the next 90 minutes. The writing is a mishmash of 13 Great Thinkers and Artists, ranging from the likes of Aristotle, Pietro Bembo, Sigmund Freud, down to Soper. As for the opening question, anyone who’s been to any kind of modern art has, at some point, sneered, “It must be ‘art.’” You’ve probably said it yourself.

Leslie Andrea Williams

I’ll get to the text more later. So, how was the music? After all, Ipsa Dixit is sold as an opera. Think of music transcription software. I can read this article into it and it will output sheet music, turning my speech into music notation. Then I give it to someone else to sing. The result is not Rex-Harrison-style speak-singing, but sing-speaking. Now, add lots of random notes, shrieks, and vocalizing. The onstage three-piece ensemble (Flute: Rachel Beetz, Percussion: Sidney Hopson, Violin: Mona Tian) basically mirrors what Soprano says, er, sings, when not making noise with their instruments.

Sound designer Ben Maas provided ear-splitting amplification. Hopson wore an ugly face microphone; Schubert a forehead mic; Beetz and Tian’s were hidden. The amplification was one of the biggest barriers to receiving the work. Too often, Schubert’s dialog got buried by the musicians. The random shrieking was downright painful.

Rachel Beetz, Mona Tian, and Anna Schubert

Coupled with the muddy mix, sentences were so long and heavy with academese that I frequently forgot how they started. At least when that happens while reading Marcel Proust, I can turn back two pages to find the subject and verb. Topics here covered drama, the body, rhetoric, the nature of being, and language. There’s a scene where Schubert and Hopson act out Socrates and Plato on the eve of execution while both share a xylophone. During the section on language, I’m not convinced that Schubert completed a single sentence. There was mention of “peripeteia” and “anagnorisis” — words that should never be uttered without access to a dictionary. It reeks of the nonsense of film theory and similarly incomprehensible academic writing.

Rachel Beetz, Mona Tian

And what of the artistic partnership with Martha Graham Dance Company? It’s just the two dancers and choreographer Janet Eilber, who is also Artistic Director of that company. Eilber’s choreography is based on fragments of Graham’s work, but is only a small aspect of the show. The dancers are easily ignored and disappear for long stretches.

Mona Tian, Leslie Andrea Williams, Anna Schubert, Anne Souder, Sidney Hopson

Jordan Moore did production design. There was no set, just the second stage, which the dancers used for four minutes about an hour into the production. A total waste of dual-stage potential. It’s just as well; Kaitlin Trimble’s blinding side lighting here was pointed right in my face.

Meanwhile, video designer Adam Larsen projected fragments of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with a jerky frame rate and overlaid with blue stripes. It was distracting and didn’t have anything to do with anything.

Mona Tian, Anna Schubert

As the evening wore on and the jumbles kept piling, the show began to feel like a parody of avant-garde opera. There were humorous bits, but it was intentional “opera humor.” Not really funny, but enough to provoke some scattered and forced light laughter. Near the end, though, after another extended absence, the dancers re-entered the theater, this time in sparkly flapper dresses (why?) and noisily calling attention to themselves as they came down the aisles, offering armfuls of popcorn and soda, undercutting the seriousness of the performance. This was the closest that director, Artistic Director, and Chief Creative Officer of Long Beach Opera James Darrah got to his own personal moment of revelation. But, alas, Ipsa Dixit otherwise showed no further such self-awareness of its absurdity.

Leslie Andrea Williams, Rachel Beetz

Credit to music director Christopher Rountree for…I don’t know. I just hated this. So, so, much. Those poor musicians. They put on their hardest concentration faces while having to blow on a disassembled flute, getting a violin yanked on, and speaking lines. Schubert, herself, performed on a bunch of instruments, and from memory! They made it sound like this mess was actually written down. Really, an amazing display of skill. In the abstract. You’d still be out $175 for a prime seat, though.

Leslie Andrea Williams and Anne Souder (front),
Mona Tian, Anna Schubert and Sidney Hopson (back)

The run of Ipsa Dixit coincided with OperaFest LA, with so much opera that you’d have worn yourself out trying to see everything. However, the plethora of performances belie the quality on offer: of the four operas I saw last week, this included, three of them were duds. A 25% success rate does not signal a healthy state of opera. Which was the success? The Opera Buffs’ wonderful and unamplified concert performance on Sunday at Zipper Hall of Douglas Moore and John Latouche’s beautiful 1956 The Ballad of Baby Doe, which was not included in OperaFest. It offers so much of what modern operas tend to lack. It has an orchestra! It has melody and harmony! It has a story! It has characters! It has a chorus! It has more than one singer! I don’t think this is too much to ask for. What struck me the most was that everyone visibly loved performing in The Ballad of Baby Doe. There was a joy that spread from the stage into the audience. It is this kind of work — joyous work — that shows the way to a healthy future of opera, not with the finger-snapping posers and their increasingly impenetrable esoterica. There is still a place for the likes of Ipsa Dixit: in the kinds of cafés mocked in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Leslie Andrea Williams

photos by Jason Al-Taan

IPSA DIXITLong Beach Opera and Martha Graham Dance Company
Art Theatre, 2025 E 4th St. in Long Beach
played June 1, 8 and 9, 2024 (reviewed June 9)
for future events, visit LBO

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