Joan La Barbara
Developing the characters in Ashley operas

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This is one of several memoirs written as part of the Tribute to Robert Ashley on September 11, 2014, at Roulette in New York.

Each new opera began with a script arriving in the mail and an explanation from Bob of the pitch centers and terrain as well as the rhythmic elements, beats per line, and a description of how the “orchestra” might eventually sound. Sometimes a recording (on cassette in earlier years, then DAT, then cd) was included with a sample of the orchestra or Bob reading the text over click track and line count.

We each had individual sessions with Bob to discuss the nature of the character, a bit of background (but not too much) and a lot about the attitudes and views held by that character. “Now Eleanor” was a reporter; she had opinions about everything; she was on a quest, seeking revelations and quite possibly, The Truth. Bob and I spoke about her sense of “authority” and that her pronunciation was precise, necessitated by her job as a newscaster. When Now Eleanor (she was called Now Eleanor because when she spoke, she often would go into great detail, causing the listener to say, “Now Eleanor … “) traveled to the Southwest searching for the spirituality of the LowRider culture, she began to receive letters from listeners asking for advice. At first her responses were all in English, then some Spanish crept in, and Spanglish, and even a bit of “speaking in tongues” but not quite. Gradually, as she receives the information, the “Word”, the passion leads her to absorbing and processing the culture of The Other.

There were several versions of the quartet of operas that comprised “Now Eleanor’s Idea”, as there were with most of Bob’s operas. He continued refining and adjusting during rehearsals as well as in between tours when he had time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t quite satisfy his intention.

And each of the singers continued to fine-tune his/her vocalization, adapting to a better understanding of the underpinnings of the character. While Bob gave the foundation pitch to each singer, the actual terrain of the vocal line was our individual responsibility, to create and define the character from the way we delivered each speech.

The characters in “Dust” were perhaps the clearest and yet most mysterious of all of Bob’s characters. Each was based on a real person Bob had observed or encountered, but he gave us just enough information to begin our work. In creating “Lucille”, I did a lot of research, observing homeless people, those who ranted and yelled at the cars as well as those who sat solitary on the sidewalk, with that slightly vacant look to their eyes. I recall a particular young woman who appeared lost in her own world, never begging, no cardboard sign, just sitting on the sidewalk, her back against a building, her knees crunched up against her chest. I kept her in mind as I developed my performance persona, along with the man who shook his fist and told everyone he encountered what they were doing wrong, and the “flower-child” whose mind had drifted somewhere else, sometime ago. Bob told me that the real Lucille had once been beautiful but got lost somehow, and Mickey, the guy who owned the sandwich shop, gave her sandwiches because he remembered how she used to be. So poignant, so clear, so sad, so human they all were, and it was our responsibility to bring them to life with all their foibles, their quirks, their memories, their pain and still a hint, a distant whisper, of perhaps even happiness.

Words will be written about Bob’s texts, their complexity, their wisdom, their obtuse yet clever sub-texts and historical references, but only the performers know how deeply Bob cared about the characters themselves, their stories all woven from his own life experience.

© 2014 Joan La Barbara