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MUSIC : OPERA REVIEW

Unconventional spiritual quest

'Escape Artist' merges drums, bouzouki and hammer dulcimer with layered vocals for an otherworldly effect.

September 26, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

Among the things that Robert Een's opera, "The Escape Artist," handily escapes is opera. A spiritual quest conveyed through a variety of music traditions in 18 numbers, it received a concert performance Wednesday night at REDCAT as part of the World Festival of Sacred Music, by 10 performers arranged in a semicircle.

A dramaturge was credited (Karin Levitas, who co-wrote the story with Een) but appeared little employed. There was clearer evidence of the other two credits on the program -- for eyeglasses and light orbs. Everyone onstage wore the same stylishly clunky l.a. Eyeworks frames (white in front, dark temples). Hanging above was Bryan Jackson's contribution: illuminated, fuzzy white balls he originally made for l.a. Eyeworks' stores.

Perhaps these accouterments had something to do with inner and outer vision. The sketchy story begins with childhood innocence followed by anger and violence. Love is not enough. A hero seeks monks and fellow searchers in distant lands, meets "One in whom he experiences great light and unity." This gives him the spiritual tools with which to return to the world.

A cellist, vocalist and composer, Een got his start performing with Meredith Monk. He came to new music prominence in her 1990 luminous performance piece "Facing North," a stage duet by the two.

Een has since branched out musically and philosophically. Spread throughout "The Escape Artist" are allusions to Tibetan Buddhism along with the 13th century Persian poet Rumi and the 20th century Indian mystic Meher Baba. His ensemble, the International All-Star Band, includes culturally diverse instruments, among them piano, accordion, electric bass, bouzouki (a Greek mandolin), hammer dulcimer, African drums and a Tibetan singing bowl. Along with four women vocalists, many of the instrumentalists sing.

There is a little bit of everything in this often engaging 80-minute score. It begins with a drone and ends with a waltz. There is soul singing and more soul singing -- the mystical type and, to convey the attainment of enlightenment, the Aretha Franklin type. Transcendence is achieved by overtone singing, which is, in fact, truly transcendent when ghost pitches that seem to come out of nowhere circle around your ears.

Ignorance has something to do with the sound of gongs. Love is captured in a happy, catchy tune. At the opera's midpoint, agony follows sexual rapture, dreamy "Irresistible You" becomes the wailing of "Agony."

There is an unmistakable sweetness to the flow of Een's wide-eyed music. It doesn't go deep, but if it did, the surface ripples might not lap the continents quite so graciously. Een himself is most impressive when his vocal and cello techniques merge into sounds unheard before. The ear is also tickled by how smoothly vocal traditions from East and West blend, by how comfortable a hammer dulcimer or accordion enters into the spirit of ancient India. A bit of piano funk in such an environment is as welcome as everything else.

But the ace up Een's sleeve is the overtones. He uses them sparingly, as vehicles of otherworldly transport. In the real world, singers sometimes claim out-of-body experiences from the mastery of this technique, and occasionally overtone ensembles become downright cultish. But if you got a room vibrating with enough overtones, you could probably get away with murder.

Staging this quasi-opera will not be easy. The story is classic spiritual quest material, and dramatically the score doesn't rise much above the concept album level. What "The Escape Artist" really needs is an escape artist, one willing to take off the silly glasses (which suit Een but no one else onstage), turn off the illuminated fuzzy balls and toss out the story line.

Een has a talent for removing musical boundaries. But the different musical traditions need to have space in which to roam and find new contexts, not to be lashed to old narrative ones.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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