“I think opera as we currently know it is on its way out,” said R.B. Schlather. “I personally don’t like sitting in theaters where there are thousands of people and you’re far away from the stage. That’s not satisfying.”
The 30-year-old opera and theater director has devoted himself to creating a new experience for audiences in recent years, pairing the drama and music of a nearly 500-year-old art form with the works of contemporary visual artists in modern art galleries.
He is collaborating with IlluminArts, Miami’s art song and chamber music series, to bring “experiential opera” to the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) with an interactive performance of David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “the little match girl passion.”
A cast of four professional singers and a percussionist will rehearse the work under Schlather’s direction in the gallery shared with works by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo.
“We were drawn to pairing David Lang’s ‘the little match girl passion’ with Doris Salcedo’s work because both creators, Lang and Salcedo, comment on the importance of dualities in their work, highlighting suffering as well as hope,” explained IlluminArts artistic director Amanda Crider.
Lang’s work builds on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a poor young girl who struggles with abuse, poverty and ultimately, redemption. According to Crider, the story is “suffused with opposites; a beautiful past with a bitter present.”
Salcedo’s sculptures address the social injustice, suffering and trauma that have long been part of Colombia’s history.
Beginning May 27, rehearsals will be open to museum visitors, creating a spontaneous interplay of artistic process and audience, culminating in a free public presentation on June 2.
“We’re going to take a piece that was a very tragic human event and place it into a context where the audience must walk through the gallery where this performance is happening,” said Schlather. “It can be disorienting and, as an audience member, you have to decide how to engage with the performers and the creative process.”
Schlather, who was introduced to opera by his parents at the age of five, has staged similar “installations” to critical acclaim in New York City.
The director, who worked with New York City Opera when the famed company closed in bankruptcy, particularly relishes opening the rehearsal process to audiences.
“We take what happens behind closed doors and put it into a fine arts space, stripped down to the bodies and sound,” Schlather said. “Really, opera started as experimentation between music and text and moving bodies. My work is very much about getting back to that alchemy. If you get it right or realize it in the right way, you produce a strong catharsis.”
He summed up his mission: “By giving people that entry point into opera, it takes the pressure off and empowers audiences. They stay longer than they might expect.”
IlluminArts presents David Lang’s “the little match girl passion,” directed by R.B. Schlather, at Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. Open rehearsals will be presented May 27 through May 31 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. with the free final performance on Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m. For more information, go to PAMM.org and IlluminArts.org.