Review: A ‘Phantom Opera’ Dreams Between Life and Death

Review: A ‘Phantom Opera’ Dreams Between Life and Death

“Everyone will now be too far away,” a character quietly sings in Aaron Siegel’s new “Rainbird.” It’s a softly shattering summary of what death does.

That line stuck in my mind during the work that followed excerpts from “Rainbird” on the program Thursday evening at Roulette in Brooklyn: “The Nubian Word for Flowers,” a new opera by Pauline Oliveros left unfinished when she died, just over a year ago.

Ms. Oliveros was a beloved maverick, an electronic-music pioneer who turned to an earthy brand of conceptualism focused on meditative listening, improvisation and text-based “scores” that anyone could follow. What she left of “The Nubian Word for Flowers” required completion: by her librettist, creative partner and spouse, the writer and director who goes by Ione; by a team of sound designers; by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble; by collaborators from the company Experiments in Opera.

It was, by all accounts, a labor of love from artists who had known and worked with Ms. Oliveros, joined in finishing what she started and honoring her memory. For at least a few minutes, I thought as the performance began, everyone wasn’t now too far away.

Endearingly idiosyncratic, a sometimes awkward (and rather long) marriage of intimate instrumental textures and all-too-traditionally-heroic vocal ones, “The Nubian Word for Flowers” is a ghost story, what its creators call a “phantom opera.” It begins — if such a surreal, stylized narrative can be said to do something as standard as that — with the death of Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), one of Britain’s key colonial officials in Africa and its war secretary at the start of World War I, when his ship sank off the Orkney Islands.


From left, Zizo, Alice Teyssier and Michael Weyandt in “The Nubian Word for Flowers.”

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Kitchener (the clear, evocative Michael Weyandt), in some state between death and life, ends up on a dreamlike version of the Nile River island that would later bear his name. There, he is surrounded by his plants — he was an expert botanist — and his memories, and an unnamed boatman who represents the Nubian diaspora of the 20th century (here the Egyptian performer Zizo, plangently chanting and accompanying himself on the oud).

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