"Wet" is an ambitious and alarming new opera with strong music by Anne LeBaron. It is about the horror of flooding and the big business of water. The context we can't possibly ignore is New Orleans inundated, although Terese Svoboda's libretto was begun a dozen years before Katrina and the setting of Nataki Garrett's modest production is no place specific. The premiere was Thursday night at the CalArts-run REDCAT, with many involved in the production connected to the arts school.
Water is a mystical and commercial force in "Wet," but mostly it is an agent of death, which is what makes the opera disturbing. REDCAT is sonically flooded with the burbling, swishing, roaring sound of water, produced by a chamber orchestra in a makeshift pit before the REDCAT stage.
The ensemble is of our time and world-music culture. Flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano -- the so-called Pierrot ensemble, after the instruments Arnold Schoenberg used to score his song cycle "Pierrot Lunaire" -- share the pit with Japanese shakuhachi, Australian didgeridoo, country and western pedal steel guitar, tuba, vibes, percussion and electronic music equipment. The one thing all these instruments have in common is the ability to gurgle, and that is what they are doing when the audience walks in.
The story of the opera is told in great detail in the program booklet but less completely onstage. A water plant foreman, Hal, who has impregnated a pair of teenage twins and has an affair with a reporter, Jane, ignores his infertile wife, Blue Eyes. Hal is poison, and there's funny business at the plant. Meanwhile, a river is flooding, and Death makes an entrance. Drownings, a stabbing, lost children, broken marriages and much grief are this opera's prospects.
Death is the character to pay attention to. He makes deals. He has a light spirit and a sense of fun. Unlike the rest, he enjoys his work and makes the fewest compromises or mistakes. Also unlike the others, he lives up to his side of whatever deals he makes. He gets the best music.
Paul Berkolds, who sings Death, is an exceptional presence. He makes his appearance in a smoking jacket and fez singing those deep chords that Tibetan monks produce. From that alone, you know he is somebody. At the other extreme, he does a Monty Pythonesque silly song and dance. He also covers much territory in between.
Death controls the flood of this opera's water, be it the pernicious nature of the water plant or the river overflowing. But he doesn't really set the tone of the opera, which hovers uneasily between realism and surrealism. LeBaron's writing for the instrumental ensemble is full of invention, sometimes avant-garde and sometimes not. Cultures never collide, but many coexist. Her fluidity with musical style and with musical character is the real wetness of "Wet." The instruments offer watery unpredictability and readily take the shape of any container (or musical form).
Other than Death, the characters are knowable and commonplace. It is hard to talk about the libretto because too few of the words come through the music, and those that do aren't particularly musical or poetic: "Water is the new oil" is one line I caught. Various characters' plights are pretty much what you'd expect -- Jane fights with her husband after making love to Hal -- but many of the complications thrown in are of little use to a composer in a 95-minute one-act opera.
LeBaron uses what she can and occasionally turns a scene into something conventionally operatic. Jane ends the opera with an aria that soprano Ani Maldjian sang with sure, soaring high notes and sure, soaring high emotion. Jonathan Mack made a meal of Hal; he was impressive in turning the character's self-satisfaction into terror. Most of the remaining singers were convincing.
But this is an opera that is best when it doesn't try to be convincing. LeBaron's music wants to flood Svoboda's narrative levees and be itself, unconstrained. The music is too good for the words, too good for the story and too good for Garrett's sentimental and ordinary staging.
Nor is it helped by an aggressive sound design that amplifies the singers into an ugly stridency that wears on the ear. But Marc Lowenstein's conducting is excellent. And effective watery video projections throughout -- often smartly crude, some manipulated live -- add a contemporary visual touch.
New operas rarely find their footing the first night out. But those with effective music often do eventually. "Wet's" got the music. Now what it needs is a dramaturge.
Where: REDCAT, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. today
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org