A rooster, a shopper and Cheerios make a strangely compelling night with Guerilla Opera’s “Gallo”

May 23, 2014 at 2:00 am

By Angelo Mao

Aliana de la Guardia and Douglas Dodson star in Ken Ueno’s “Gallo,” which had its world premiere Thursday night by Guerilla Opera.

Ken Ueno’s Gallo, which premiered Thursday at the Boston Conservatory, is a melancholy meditation on history. It’s also an opera about a rooster named Farinelli who dances in a sandbox filled with Cheerios. Ueno’s opera is a lot of things, but a typical opera it is not. Fortunately, it’s also a mostly effective mingling of music, direction, and ideas. Not all of it is good, but some of it is great.

Gallo feels more like an art installation than an opera. The premiere, which was mounted by Guerilla Opera and directed by Sarah Meyers, took place in the Zack Box Theatre, a room for no more than perhaps twenty people. Audience participation is expected. Wear warm socks as well: shoes are forbidden, in order to protect the Cheerio beach.

The opera is “about” the world-weary rooster, or Gallo, played by countertenor Douglas Dodson, who rages about the folly of empires and how nature will eventually erase humanity, the same way the waves will erode away the beach. He is surprised and cowed by the appearance of the voluptuous female Shopper, played by soprano Aliana de la Guardia, who sings about her passion for shopping. The rooster then delivers a nonsense aria about the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, reaches an epiphany, and gets gently beheaded by the Shopper (who has morphed, now, into the Mother).

The opera clearly wears its weirdness on its sleeve, but Ueno succeeds because the human side is comprehensible. It’s not a stretch to see the rooster waxing about the chicken-or-egg conundrum as an absurdist metaphor for human existence. Perhaps the most successful element of the opera is the interaction between the Shopper/Mother and the Gallo. At one point, de la Guardia sings, on the telephone, a virtuosic nonsense aria composed of explosive shrieks and growls, while the Rooster hangs on to the telephone cord like a frightened child. The scene becomes a child’s perspective of his mother talking loudly on the telephone, and it’s really quite moving. It’s doubly effective because the scene cogently inserts the artist’s own personal childhood memories in the larger context of human history.

The least effective parts are when Ueno is being unnecessarily vague or unnecessarily explicit. His voiceovers, for example instructing us to see the Cheerio beach as an “existential space” and a metaphor for history, come off as didactic. The Cheerios without his instruction already do a huge amount of work: they resemble grains of sand except, because they are larger, each of them is distinctly visible, like individual humans — or like wedding rings piled up in a heap. The epiphany that Gallo gets towards the end of the show is also not clear enough to bear the weight of the end. Maybe, just maybe, no epiphany is possible.

Musically, Ueno never errs. He conjures interesting sounds from his ensemble — a cello, clarinets (including the equally-tuned Bohlen-Pierce clarinet), saxophone, and percussion — that never feel self-indulgent. There is a melancholy passacaglia at the beginning that, if not a counterpoint showpiece, is beautiful. Ueno includes many prerecorded passages, often of white noise, and there are interesting moments when the live music (or sounds) dip in and out of the prerecorded ones. He provides Dodson and de la Guardia with kinetic arias, and particularly explores de la Guardia’s soprano, drawing out murmurs and whispers in addition to sung notes. Ueno’s writing for Dodson is more conventional, which is just as well, as Dodson possesses a beautiful, ringing, and agile countertenor. Neither, though, looked particularly comfortable trying to keep their balance on all those Cheerios.

Gallo by Ken Ueno plays in the Zack Box at the Boston Conservatory through May 31. guerillaopera.org.

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