Erling Wold has scored surrealist Max Ernst's 1930 collage novel "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" as a chamber oprera for three vocalists, two actors and an eight-piece orchestra with exhilirating results. The 90-minute piece is a spellbinding wonderhilarious and horrifying in that good old surrealist way, replete with sexual terrors, denuded schoolgirls and corny religious conflations. In contemporary cultural analysis, when everything from corporate mergers to Donkey Kong is labelled "surreal," it's refreshing to be reminded of the original avant-garde's project (with all its pretentious chauvinism and sophomoric rebellion intact) in such an entertaining way.
Ernst's collage novels recombined cutout penny arcade images into impossible superpositions, and underscored each new image with a line of bombastic text. Unlike his drab paintings, which were long ago absorbed into the lexicon of early '70s pulp science fiction covers, Ernst's collage experiments are still comically alive. Seen now, the images immediately bring to mind Terry Gilliam's animation work for Monty Python, and the text (translated from French by fellow artist Dorothea Tanningherself a bit of a nutter) is full of proto-New York School poetic locutions like, "All my hummingbirds have alibis, a hundred profound virtues cover my body," and "The explosion of stars is not reserved for ticketholders."
The plot of "A Little Girl" concerns, of course, a young girl's first sexual dream in which marriage is equated with death, lover equals father, semen equals blood, broken teeth symbolize the hymen, etc. etc. The actors and singers of the piece move about the stage using all manner of outlandish props and facial expressions to bring these somewhat world-weary metaphors to life. The narrative revolves around the normal syntactic confusion of sex dreams. It's all very erotic-sounding and unfathomable. Non-rational ecstasy arrives in the form of rape by a defrocked father/priest, and the climax comes when the girl (Spontanette), who has split into the duality Marceline-Marie, becomes whole again and wakes up from the embrace of her celestial bridegroom.
Wold's music is a moody and pleasant combination of Phillip Glass-like repetitive figures with the slightly romantic chromaticism of Paris-period Stravinsky. His choice of a traditional chamber orchestra (he has been called the "Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock") puts a shoulder of heartfelt nostalgia behind the vocal score, which leaps from speech-song to operatic excess to animal-like ululations in an appropriately fragmented way. The staging is fantastic, and makes good use of everything from the conductor's position to the rafters. The five actors (Laurie Amat, Rachel Wylie, Deborah Gwinn, Ken Berry and Jim Cave) are all wonderfully talented and willing to have a good, campy time with the material. They not only fluidly glide into some of the more ridiculous convolutions of the narrative, but invest their individual roles with lighthearted fun (there is always something going on in the nether reaches of the stage.) The spirited orchestra, too, puts a little comic oomph into its playing, under the conduction of Deirdre McClure. All in all, "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" is an excellent way to escape everyday hyperreality into a dream of subconscious desire come to life. Marke Bieschke