As trends in the performing arts go, the rise of the mixed genre work in recent years has been hard to ignore. Call it dance theater, spectacle theater or multidisciplinary performance, work that combines music, dance and theater has been a hot ticket for some time now on the avant-garde circuit and in mainstream venues as well.
The mistake, however, would be in thinking of this as the innovative trend of the 1980s and '90s. On the contrary, it's more a case of back to the future. Way back.
In fact, long before there were such directors as Peter Sellars, Ann Bogart or Robert Wilson, or such choreographers as Pina Bausch, David Rousseve or Bill T. Jones--even before there was a Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--there was Moliere. Yes, Moliere.
Known to contemporary American audiences primarily as a playwright, the 17th century French dramatist's works were actually much more interdisciplinary than is widely recognized--which Long Beach Opera is poised to demonstrate next weekend. Together with Bela Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" will constitute the company's annual weeklong festival at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach.
Rather than the more familiar text-only form of Moliere's final comedy, LBO is presenting the original version, complete with the "interludes" of music, song and dance composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for the play's 1673 premiere.
"It's a 17th century form of what I've done my entire career," says director Matthew Maguire, whose recent projects have included writing the libretto for the science-fiction opera "Chaos," seen at the Kitchen in New York in 1998. "To find its antecedent centuries earlier is very exciting. With the naivete of young experimentalism, you think, 'Oh my god, I'm inventing this.' And then to find out that it was invented in the 1600s, that's a big thrill.
"I see very little distance between this form and the experimental work that I've been doing," continues Maguire, who co-founded the New York-based Creation Production Company with choreographer Susan Mosakowski. Mosakowski's credits include works seen at LaMaMa E.T.C. in New York and a full-length ballet, "White/Black," for the Berlin Kunstlerhaus.
LBO's "Imaginary Invalid" includes an extended musical "pastorale" (in setting and theme) as an introduction, a commedia dell'arte dramatic interlude, a second entr'acte farce and, finally, a dance sequence called a ballet de coeur. The music and lyrics are from the original; the choreography will be created by Mosakowski.
"[Putting all the pieces together] appeals to me very much because I'm a collagist," Maguire says. "I like to put two disparate things next to one another and watch how they unify."
"The Imaginary Invalid," which centers on the plight of an aging, lovesick hypochondriac, is often thought to have been inspired by Moliere's own life, including his unhappy marriage to a much younger woman and the public outcry against some of his more biting works.
Written when the playwright was already in failing health, the three-act comedy focuses on the writer's alter ego, Argan, a man who fears both death and medical science, and, in a secondary plot, a pair of comparatively normal younger lovers. As a satire, it is a powerful indictment of both doctors' mores and professional hypocrisy in general. Famously, and amazingly, the versatile playwright collapsed onstage and died while performing the title role during the initial run, in February 1673.
"I think this piece is his last testament, a prideful deliberate exorcism of all his pain," says Maguire. "Moliere says, 'I will make a comedy of this,' and what's really is driving him is this despair of love."
"The Imaginary Invalid" is the last of a series of works known as comedy-ballets. Created by Moliere and Jean-Baptiste Lully between 1661 and 1670, the combined form was continued in this final work by Moliere and Charpentier because Lully, court composer to Louis XIV, had by that time moved on to opera and lost interest in it.
It's a kind of piece not typically performed by opera companies today, but that does have precedent in LBO's always unusual repertory. In 1986, LBO presented another Moliere's play-with-music, "Bourgeois Gentilhomme," on a bill with the U.S. premiere of "Ariadne auf Naxos," a collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 1989, LBO performed Beaumarchais' "The Guilty Wife," and last year, it Chicano-ized Purcell's "The Indian Queen," in a savagely iconoclastic transformation. The company also has a number of other pieces in the repertory, including four by Offenbach, that employ spoken text and music, actors and singers.
"The Moliere comedies have been on my mind," explains LBO general director Michael Milenski. "For this year, the choice of this particular one as the richest comedy-ballet was at the suggestion of Stephen Fleck, a professor in the French department at CSULB.