The Nashville Opera was recently kind enough to invite me once again to see one of their shows for free in return for a review. When I received the email asking me if I would give Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher a write up, I jumped at the chance. I’m a horror fanatic as well as a stage performance fiend.
First of all let me say this: Usher is a very strange animal. Director John Hoomes did some fantastic things with projected video that I’ve never seen on a live stage before, nor do I expect to again for a long while, if ever. The plot is ambiguous, the dialogue is choppy, and the score is intentionally repetitive.
And yet somehow it all combines into an undeniably unique and incomprehensibly enjoyable opera.
Pre and Post-Opera
An hour before the show, audience members were allowed into the theater for a quick presentation by John Hoomes where he explained the cast and crew’s motivations and intentions for The Fall of the House of Usher. We were told about the processes that were involved in the creation of the production, and it never seemed like PR. He honestly seemed interested in being candid with us and interacting with the people for whom he directed this piece.
After the show, there was a Q&A session with the team. While some of the answers echoed those of the pre-show talk, the audience members who stayed were interested in many different things than had already been touched on. We talked about everything from influences to music to costuming and whether the physician’s beard was real. The social aspect of these sessions really impressed me; I hope the Nashville Opera continues with them in the future.
A Slow Start
Going in, Hoomes told us that the opera was hard to get into and purposefully vague. I was not, however, ready for the degree he meant.
Within the first few minutes, I honestly wondered if I would like Usher at all. The video being projected on the minimalist, black backdrop was obtrusive, the actors were singing out of sync with the music, and the music itself seemed to drone on and on with the same movements until I found myself occasionally zoning out from the hypnosis.
And then something clicked.
I’m not sure what it was or if I can effectively explain it, but all the parts that would have been detriments to other productions came together very nicely to create an atmosphere that can best be described as “unidentifiable dread.”
Nashville Opera’s The Fall of the House of Usher is the third dramatic adaptation of the Edgar Alan Poe short story I’ve seen. It’s also my favorite. I love the original, and while the other two were watchable (Jan Svankmajer’s short film was actually pretty darn good), they never “felt” quite right. The opera, however, touched on something visceral in me and “felt” like Poe.
It Creeped Me Out
There. I admitted it.
I’m a guy who can watch most horror movies and laugh about the gore and violence, but The Fall of the House of Usher really creeped me out. At one point in the opera, my wife leaned over to me and said, “This is scarier than any haunted house we went through this year.”
I agree with her.
Once I adjusted to the projected video, I was blown away by the effect it had on me.
The video itself was a mind-trip. Abstract images representing the state of mind of the characters flowed across a transparent scrim (I think), the stage, and a second screen in the back, creating a three-dimensional image that worked quite well for the atmosphere of the show.
I was not quite sure how to take William’s (the narrator from the short story given a name) trip to the House of Usher because of its surreal qualities, but by the time Madeline had been introduced and the coffin (complete with rotting corpse!) was subtly projected on the front of the stage, I was hooked on the care Hoomes and his team took to make everything work so well together.
Nothing was over the top (though some things were certainly outlandish), and the story was taken very seriously and given the respect it deserves. The director had mentioned during the pre-show presentation that his intention was to basically make up for a campy, mocking rendition he saw in 1988. He certainly succeeded.
The music Philip Glass composed was intentionally repetitive and discordant. The lyrics he wrote to go along with it were equally choppy and were sung out of tune. But all this goes a long way to reach that particular “feel” that a good Poe adaptation should have.
The singers were great. They played their characters melodramatically, of course, but empathetically. While I was sometimes unclear of exactly why I felt a certain way toward William or Roderick, I never questioned that I did. Madeline Usher had no lines except for a melancholy “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” that was sang concurrently with everything else, creating a wonderfully rich auditory blanket for the audience. We were always wrapped in sound unless Glass specifically thought we should not be.
The repetitiveness of the music initially turned me off. It droned for a few minutes, hypnotizing me, but eventually, I became used to its cadence and appreciated the tension that the necessarily repeated movements helped create.
On top of the repetition, the actors never sang in tune with the music. They harmonized with each other, but they were always slightly off from where the music was, and while it was sometimes unnoticeable, it created a very visceral feeling that something was wrong and out of place, even if we had no clear idea as to what it could be.
I heard the following comment a lot during the Q&A (as well as during conversations with my wife regarding Usher):
“I really liked it. I think.”
Our enjoyment of the show was always qualified with an “I think.” That’s not a bad thing. Far from it.
The way I look at it is that Usher might be the single strangest performance I have ever seen. And when there are that many layers to something, a direct response of “I like it” or “I didn’t like it” is impossible. Further analysis is required. So for our first reaction to the show to be resoundingly positive, the creative team had to do something right.
We might not know precisely why we like it, but we know we do. And from the things John Hoomes was saying, that’s what he was shooting for.
Overall, The Fall of the House of Usher did a lot of things I had never seen on stage before and succeeded. It ranks up there with Wicked as being one of the wildest spectacles I’ve seen on stage, and that’s saying a lot. The acting was spot on, the music was well played, and the whole experience was incredibly fun and social—exactly what I have come to expect from the Nashville Opera and TPAC.