East Village Opera Company, the opera-rock hybrid company, first attracted buzz in 2004 with its live performances at Joe’s Pub. Two members of the company, co-founder Tyley Ross and AnnMarie Milazzo are currently singing miked, rock-infused versions of arias like Lakme‘s Flower Duet, Verdi’s “La donne e mobile,” and Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as part of Remember Me, an integrated production featuring singers onstage with members of the Parsons Dance Company at the Joyce Theater. The show—one of three programs the Parsons is doing during this month’s residency at the Joyce—is billed as a completely revamped version of the show that aired on PBS last year, and features new choreography and costumes by Project Runway designer Austin Scarlett.
Remember Me is a bit analogous to a show like Mamma Mia in that it adds a story line to provide a framework for tunes that people already know—certainly the operagoers in the audience know them, and many of the non-opera audience do as well. The adaptation of Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas is the source of the show’s title (“Remember me, but forget not my fate”) and roughly corresponds in mood to the story’s tragic element involving a love triangle between a woman and two men. In the 75-minute show, presented without intermission, Ross and Milazzo, who were miked, stood mostly on the sides of the stage while dancers took center stage; sometimes they joined the action, singing directly to the dancers. The rest of the musical accompaniment came out of speakers, pre-recorded tracks—wailing guitars, keyboards, violins, drums, clarinet, and so forth.
For someone without a dance background, the Parsons choreography was most impressive in its muscularity—several of the lifts involved complicated grabs at the waist. In one case Julie Blume, who danced the central character, was transferred from a seated position on one dancer’s shoulders to the shoulders of another dancer. Throughout the piece, rapid unison turns and leaps were breathtaking, and there was a mesmerizing section involving the undulating arms of eight dancers. (I was in a $19 seat in Row B, making some bits hard to see—it’s very close to the stage and almost below it, so I’d recommend scrounging together a few extra dollars above my $20 limit for seats a little farther back.) But as an integrated piece, I came away somewhat disappointed. The story, especially the ending, didn’t work for me, and the show could have used more heart. At times it was hard to focus on the story line when the arias’ words only loosely corresponded to the dancing. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with updating opera arias to a rock or pop format—anyone who remembers Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Nessun dorma” at the Grammys in 1998 can attest to the possibilities of a pop adaptation. (You can see Aretha’s performance at YouTube, embedded below) For my taste, EVOC didn’t go far enough in many of its aria arrangements—what worked best for the dancers in Remember Me were the numbers that diverged most strongly from the original material. The added “mercy, mercy” section in “O mio babbino caro” provided a groove that gave the dancing needed energy, and in “Nessun dorma” a thumping drum line provided a nice obsessive element. Ross’s voice is much louder than Milazzo’s—even in her biggest moments, for instance the high B at the end of “Ebben, ne andro lontano,” it was hard to hear her above the recorded music of electric guitars and drums.
In his review in The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay strongly objected to Remember Me‘s “monotonous rock-drum pulse,” but what I found myself wishing for were more live musicians—a live band in the house. I would love to see David Parsons’ choreography for an actual opera—which he has done before, when he choreographed Aida at Italy’s Arena di Verona and Maria de Buenos Aires for New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera in 2007.
Image: Tyley Ross and Miguel Quinones in Remember Me. Photo by Bill Hebert (BHPhotos).