Sunday, April 22, 2007


An Auspicious Beginning

Here is the first entry into my blog as Artistic Director of the American Opera Theater (fondly known as AOT). I can just see the facial reactions to the title of this blog. (squints and eye-rolls expressing confusion to laughter to disgust and everything in-between). I thought a good place to start this blog - intended to be a notebook of the happenings at AOT as well as a diary of personal musings on music, theater, and opera from the perspective of AOT's artistic leadership - would be an explanation of its title: YUGEN. Besides its rather slavic-gastrological or southern-slang sound, the word "yugen" is a Japanese word used by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1364) to judge aesthetic value in the Noh theater tradition. It is described in the book "THE NOH DRAMA - Ten Plays from the Japanese":

"The significance of the action, the beauty of the verse, the excellence of the music, are purposely designed to 'open the ear' of the mind...awaken the emotions of the spectator and 'open his eyes' to that supreme form of beauty denoted by the word 'yugen', which is the ultimate goal and the essential element of all aesthetic expression, be it dramatic or lyrical. The term 'yugen' has no exact equivilant in English; literally it means 'obscure and dark,' but, as used by Zeami, it carries the connotation of half-revealed or suggested beauty, at once elusive and meaningful, tinged with wistful sadness".

Though the whole idea, and the language that articulates it, is striking and beautiful, it was the last part that caught my attention. 700 years after its adaptation for this purpose, the word "yugen" describes precisely and succinctly both what the fundamental element lying behind the work of AOT, and what I aspire towards personally in music, theater, and where the two meet. "Half-revealed...suggested beauty, at once elusive and meaningful" is an ultimate description of the nature of great art, and the irony of discussing it here will soon be painfully clear, if it isn't already.

This is that art, or at least what is essential in art, is beyond the scope of not only language, but also logic. This is true of the music of Bach, the frescos of Giotto, the verse of Cummings, the buildings of Gaudi, the movement of Graham. Analysis, thought, disection, ultimately fall short of description and understanding. Finally the encounter between art and environment is purely sensory and can only be felt (enter the irony of writing about it here).

AOT works with magnification and exploration of this aspect of art - the liberating concept that what is often intrinsically true in music and dance can also be true in theater (or, for those out there that draw a distinction, "opera"). In other words, that something can be created only because it is beautiful, and deny both narrative and linear construct; that it can, beyond not requiring explanation, exist completely beyond the powers of explanation, even and especially for the creator.

And this is frightening. It is frightening for the critic, scholar, and analyst because it at-the-very-least questions the merits and power of their work. It is frightening for the audience-member because it requires such absolute trust in the artist. And for that artist, it is frightening because of the immensity it implies. Speaking for all three perhaps Blaise Pascal put it best: "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me".

The fact is, freedom is quite literally awesome (meaning inspiring awe...meaning an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.)

This is the janus-face of being human, the greater the sacrifice the greater the reward. This is true of of art just as it is of liberty, just as it is of freewill (and I'll avoid the obvious political or theological discussion that could here insue). Or, at the risk of seeming trivial, I'll quote the title of too many a post-modern self-help book: "letting go is hard to do".

With each new work or revisitation of an old work AOT explores the value of letting go of narrative and lineality in exchange for wonder and possibility. This is a process, a question of degrees, and varies from work to work. Still, it is at the core of what we do.

Of course, most entries will likely be more practical in nature than this one. They will no doubt describe what we are working on and how we are working on it. At times they will be updates and at times they may even be requests. They will also sometimes be commentary. Hopefully, like our performances, they will be a whole, entertaining and inspiring. I feel this is a place to begin.

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