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Opera Review

In 'Biospheria,' an Opera Imitates Life Imitating Life

March 17, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Opera, when it is in good working order, simultaneously takes us out of our world and into ourselves. The stage and all its trappings are there to suggest a time and place. The music functions in two ways. It further helps tell us where we--in the opera house--are being transported. But it also commands our emotions, expecting us to feel as the characters on stage feel. And thus opera's great challenge is to make this a liberating, not a claustrophobic experience.

A new opera, "Biospheria," at UC San Diego turns the operatic tables. It is the work of two graduate students who have considerable professional experience, Australian composer Anthony Burr and visual artist Steven Ausbury. With the help of a local architect, Hector Perez, they take us out of the opera house and into the environment, putting disembodied music, through the magic of CD technology, in our heads.

The subject is Biosphere 2, that utopian experiment several years ago in which four men and four women spent two years in a self-sufficient steel-and-glass greenhouse, pretending that they were colonizing Mars. For the performance, the audience is divided into groups of eight, given plastic cloaks, tethered together by headphone cords and led on a long walk through the rustic La Jolla campus.

Pleasant electronic ambient music plays in our ears. The sounds mimic nature--falling rain, animals in the distance--but feel artificial. As we are herded through inviting eucalyptus groves, this has the peculiar effect of heightening reality but also seeming to shut it out. Like the Biospherians, we're in an ant farm, drawing attention as we do, a Baggie brigade, in the midst of a busy university. Sometimes the worlds combine wonderfully, such as when a clock tower chimes 5, the bells outside mingling with our electronic soundscape. But a passing car blasting rap music jars.

Along with the ambient music--some of the best I've ever heard, but not varied enough to maintain interest in this nearly three-hour performance--we hear, also over the headphones, spoken Biospherian tales. Burr and Ausbury asked a number of artists to imagine what they might have felt trapped in the Biosphere, and the libretto is made up of the interesting and often touching responses. Dixie misses music and wishes the Boy Mechanic hadn't disappeared, because he might have made her a flute out of PVC piping. Will is a frustrated poet who was a "hanger-on" to a famous poet until he got tired of the sex.

Where "Biospheria" is less original is in its intentional staging. Outdoor tableaux include actors and dancers miming a 17th century masque and intoning a Biospherian cultic chant of "I am" that lack the studied, graceful weirdness of Robert Wilson's theater, which appears to be the main influence. The finale, held in front of the imposing Protein Clinical Research Laboratory, is the colonization of Mars. Here a solemn procession and ballroom dance to what sounds like mildly distorted Dean Martin prove a not half-bad way to reenter the world.

*

"Biospheria," Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, UC San Diego. Repeats today and Sunday, 3 p.m., free (but reservations are required). (619) 291-1015 or http://www.crca.ucsd.edu/biospheria.

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