Review: An Espionage Opera Remains Enigmatic and Urgent

You can’t help but feel some sympathy for the protagonist of Robert Ashley’s opera “eL/Aficionado” when she says, “The meaning of the scene is impossible to describe, if one looks for meaning in the ordinary sense.”

It’s an evergreen sentiment when it comes to Ashley’s idiosyncratic and innovative works, atmospheric enigmas that stretch everyday spoken language to extremes by elongating it and emphasizing its contours — elevating the ordinary to something, well, operatic.

An avant-gardist who worked closely with a recurring set of collaborators to realize his vision — which generally involved a deceptively simple harmonic foundation under deceptively simple vocal technique — his work is difficult to revive, especially following his death in 2014.

But in recent years his operas have begun to pass to a new generation, through the invaluable efforts of Mimi Johnson, his widow, and Tom Hamilton, a longtime colleague. The latest revival — of “eL/Aficionado,” from the early 1990s — opened Thursday at Roulette in Brooklyn; it joins its fellow presentations since his death in offering a testament to the work’s enduring vitality. (A new “eL/Aficionado” recording is also out from Johnson’s label, Lovely Music.)

Ostensibly an espionage thriller told through the fragmented biography of an operative known only as the Agent, “eL/Aficionado” is the second installment in the tetralogy “Now Eleanor’s Idea.” But it stands alone as a subtle evocation of 20th-century politics and the paranoia of the Cold War. Like much of Ashley’s work, however, it defies simple description, with Dada-esque digressions and casual turns toward the cosmic.

In the most explicit departure from the opera’s initial run and recording, the Agent, a role written for the baritone Thomas Buckner, is in this revival recast as a mezzo-soprano. Kayleigh Butcher, a contemporary music veteran making her Ashley debut, performs the part with technical assurance and commanding interpretive depth.

As the Agent, she — a pronoun change that now extends through the libretto — recounts her career to a trio of interrogators (all of whom wear suits and sunglasses, with one, the most senior of the bunch, seated apart and elevated on a platform upstage). Butcher performs the closest thing to traditional singing, full-voiced and vibrato-rich — though crucially unassuming, never rising to true grandeur but nonetheless building tension through language: an emphasized syllable or a single letter deployed to dramatic effect.

Over the opera’s 72 minutes, the interrogation becomes increasingly unreliable. It could be real; it might not be. There are clues, perhaps, in the surreally minimalistic set — by David Moodey, after Jacqueline Humbert’s designs from 1994 — which consists of just the Agent’s and interrogators’ desks, along with two Ionic columns and a free-standing window whose curtains blow gently and mysteriously. There are also suggestions in the libretto of dreams and analysis, and the slippery nature of memory. Nothing, it seems, is certain.

The Agent’s tale moves with alluring and hypnotic momentum — at 72 beats per minute, to be exact, a common pace in Ashley’s music. The electronic score (designed and mixed live by Hamilton, the production’s music director) might seem a bit dated, its dreamy synths consistent with the era of “Twin Peaks” or “The X-Files.” But consider how Ashley’s influence, long pervasive in the work of artists like Laurie Anderson, reaches operas of today, such as “Sun & Sea,” which with a similar soundscape won the top prize at the Venice Biennale and is currently selling out on tour.

And like “Sun & Sea,” a disarmingly relaxed collection of dispatches from a world in climate crisis, “eL/Aficionado” operates on different registers. Personal ads, recited throughout, are peppered with comedy; the cast comes together as a chorus for manic real estate advertisements. These asides might mean everything, or nothing at all.

Personals, with their economical writing, are by their nature poetic, and rise to the operatic in the rhythmic and lyrical speech of the junior interrogators. As one of them, Bonnie Lander relishes the percussiveness of “Passion for Piero, Palladio, Puccini, pasta”; the other, Paul Pinto, gets his turn with the staccato phrasing of “Successful. Super-smart. Sensuous. Sensitive. Cuddly. Affectionate.”

The senior interrogator (Brian McCorkle) also blurs the line between speaking and singing, prolonging phrases and, later, pre-empting the Agent’s lines with identical ones, whispered as if fed to her. He provides a preamble for each scene, beginning with “My Brother Called.” (“He is not my brother in the ordinary sense,” the Agent explains. “It is a word we use in the department. It means someone you can count on.”) Subsequent set pieces recount tests and assignments, with interjections of the bizarre and unbelievable — things that the Agent is told to take to her grave.

For patient listeners, there are revelations. Those ads, it turns out, are code. “The person described as ‘sought’ is the same person in a different code,” we are told. “I believe it is a kind of confirmation, both for the listener — whoever that was — and for the speaker. A double-check against the memory.”

But it’s possible that this code was just another test for the Agent, who, disenchanted, left “the department” at some point before the interrogation. “Most of what happened makes no sense to me,” she admits in the penultimate scene.

Jaded and distrustful, she gave up on looking for meaning long ago and suggests the interrogators do the same. That is what pervasive uncertainty does to the mind — a life of never knowing what is a test and what an assignment, what is code and what is simply language.

This deeply unsettled feeling might have been endemic during the Cold War. But it has never really left us. Confusion to the point of exasperated resignation, we’ve seen, can be weaponized to influence elections. It can turn a public health crisis into a deadly mess. With “eL/Aficionado,” Ashley achieved what opera — or all art, for that matter — is at its most vital: urgent and, for better and worse, timeless.


Through Saturday at Roulette, Brooklyn;