Described by the composer as a nightmare vision unfolding in the mind of an IRA man on the receiving end of a prolonged and brutal interrogation, the libretto exhibits the unique logic and resonance of a particularly lucid dream. It’s probably, by Muldoon’s standards, his most clear and even realistic depiction of the dilemmas faced by those living in post cease-fire Northern Ireland. (And believe it or not, it’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny).
The range of reference and allusion in the libretto is characteristically astonishing. First of all, the Beckettian structure of the piece creates a familiar dramatic framework, but then Muldoon mixes and matches his genres with deceptive ease: we witness Romans in togas playing slot machines at Las Vegas airport, we see dancers, strippers and flight attendants become a Greek chorus and also characters within the play. The title character is a black man pretending to be a woman. In the world that the poet creates, then, nothing and no one is ever what they seem — and the more his characters yearn the less they find.
“It begins with two Irish guys who have seen some difficult times in Northern Ireland,” Muldoon said. “The tale becomes more dreamlike as it progresses. They arrive in Las Vegas and are led through a series of adventures by forces that they don’t understand. There’s an element of humor in those adventures, because they’re being pursued by the archetypical cloak-and-dagger agents Trench and Trilby, for example. [The tensions and absurdities of surveillance and counter-surveillance are occasional themes in Muldoon’s work.] I suppose one of things I was interested in was to make some sort of little inroad into some of things we’ve been through in Northern Ireland — and indeed here in America — in recent years.”
IRA men on the lam are certainly a familiar enough image in Irish drama, and much of their portrayal in performance is unflinchingly graphic.
“Both of these guys have been actively involved in political activity and they’re not necessarily people with whom one would want to spend a great deal of time — and yet there’s something not unattractive about them, as is often the case,” Muldoon said.
The two recent works “Six Honest Serving Men” and “Vera of Las Vegas,” Muldoon said, are actually the first two parts of a planned triptych of works.
“I hope if we [Hagen] ever get around to it, there will be a third section which will almost certainly be called ‘Grand Concourse,’ ” Muldoon said. “Some of these themes will be — I don’t want to say “resolved” because obviously there’s a tendency in art to move toward resolution — further explored. I’m not particularly interested in easy resolutions.”
Setting the play in Las Vegas allows Muldoon to reflect on America. “Certainly, Las Vegas is a very strange place, a terrifying place,” he said. “At every half hour, for example, a pirate ship comes around the corner of a hotel and engages in a sea battle, with sailors falling out of the rigging. It gives over-the-top a whole new meaning. And, of course, I’d written this piece before I’d ever set foot in Las Vegas. So in a way it’s all imagined. But however wild one’s imagination may run, it’s going to be lagging behind the reality.”
The work, densely packed with both image and allusion, boldly invites us to contemplate where truth resides.
“Truth’s a business that needs a little illusion,” Vera reminds us. Said Muldoon: “That idea is what’s hovering around, the notion of what truth is and where truth resides, and how difficult it is to locate it. Las Vegas isn’t the last word on America, but in some ways it’s the first word. I mention U2 along the way — and it’s no accident that one of their videos was set in Las Vegas. It’s an instant cultural signifier. It’s a sort of shorthand and it comes with the dangers that come with misreading shorthand.”
Muldoon is obviously intrigued with the characters he has created.
“I was interested in how people like these two guys end up leading the lives they’ve led,” he said. “One understands only too well how they get involved in the kind of activities they get involved in. I think more and more we have to take that into account and try to understand all that’s been happening to us. At the end of the day what I’m really trying to do is to make some sense of these matters myself. It isn’t meant to be the last word on the Irish situation or the American situation; it’s meant to be a provocative meditation.”
Referencing works as disparate as Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” Yeats’s “Long-Legged Fly”, Shelly’s “Ozymandias” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Muldoon guides us through a nightmare world of illusion, deception and terror, grimly reminding us that we may have quite a wait “before all is revealed.”
Composer Daron Hagen has worked closely with Muldoon on the opera since they jointly planned and wrote their first filmic treatment of it. A collaboration in the full sense, they sketched the outline and determined the length of each scene. “I approach Paul’s words with joy and admiration,” Hagen said. “However, the only way a composer can have the necessary amount of creative authority is to co-write with the author. If an opera fails it’s the composer who takes the fall, not the librettist. But it’s a very interesting, co-equal partnership that I have with Paul. He used to be a producer for the BBC, so he knows himself when things have to go. He also knows if I don’t relate to the character then I can’t write music for that character.”
And what would he wish the audience to know about the work before it begins? “You’re stepping into the unraveling of a persons mind, and your job, if you like, is to be sensitive to the potential for nobility in the transformation of even the most damaged people,” Hagen said. “Having some empathy for the devil is an important thing in our times. It’s easy to fear and hate what you don’t understand. It’s going to be critical for our ability to get through the next hundred years.”
The singer who will perform the title role of Vera is the prodigiously gifted and Julliard-trained gender illusionist Shequida. With an electrifying five-octave vocal range that reminded Hagen of a young Maria Calais, the singer was the first and only choice to perform the role. Already known and widely celebrated by the city’s gay community for performances in character as Jesseye Normous, Shequida brings another rich layer to an already fascinating cast.
“Once people realize that this opera is a nightmare that is unfolding in a characters head, it becomes much easier to grasp,” Shequida said. “I’m very excited to help bring it to the New York public. And I think that it will richly reward your attention.”
“Vera of Las Vegas,” a nightmare cabaret opera in one act by Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon, will be performed June 26 and 27 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at Symphony Space in New York City. Details, Center for Contemporary Opera at www.conopera.org.