A Spy Opera (or Is It?) Returns to the Stage

It was February 2020, and Mimi Johnson was pouring afternoon tea in the TriBeCa loft she once shared with her husband, the composer Robert Ashley.

Johnson was reflecting on what was then the recent revival of “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda),” by Ashley, who died in 2014 and whose innovative operas generally involved the blurry boundary of speech and singing, smooth electronic accompaniment, and enigmatic, witty storytelling.

Another revival, of Ashley’s early 1990s work “eL/Aficionado,” was supposed to follow shortly after. But because of the pandemic, Johnson was forced to shelf the nearly completed project, until Roulette in Brooklyn, on whose board she sits, approached her this year about reviving the revival; “eL/Aficionado” will run for three performances at Roulette, Thursday through Saturday.

These Ashley productions are designed not only to allow New Yorkers to see these rarely presented works again, but also to ensure they can live on once their composer’s close circle of collaborators has passed. For “Improvement,” Johnson and Tom Hamilton, a longtime creative partner of Ashley, painstakingly combed through Ashley’s archives to produce a new electronic score for the work, which was conceived as a recording and whose existing version thus contained vocals inextricable from the accompaniment.

“If we don’t get these scores organized and the tapes updated and available, Tom or I might die,” Johnson said. “And it would be a whole lot harder for someone else to do these operas.”

A simple way to convey their belief that the works can and should be performed more widely is to put them on with new talent. The original “eL/Aficionado” featured the baritone Thomas Buckner, a veteran Ashley performer, in the central role of the Agent. But Hamilton, the revival’s music director, was curious to hear the role sung by a mezzo-soprano.

He and Johnson sought out Kayleigh Butcher, who has performed in opera companies and with new-music ensembles but has never before done Ashley. She is joined by another newcomer, Bonnie Lander, as well as Paul Pinto and Brian McCorkle, who have both performed in numerous Ashley works, including “Improvement,” “Perfect Lives” and “Crash.”

As with that 2019 production of “Improvement,” the revival of “eL/Aficionado” accompanies a new recording, to be released on Friday by Lovely Music, the influential new-music label that Johnson has run since the late 1970s. Hamilton, who also produced the album, believes that having two recorded versions available will serve both to guide future performers and to illustrate the potential for expressive freedom.

“I think Kayleigh’s performance speaks to the viability of the work itself, and how it can change and grow in someone else’s hands,” he said. “And I suspect that in the future, groups will rely more on the recorded material than on the score to catch the style of the piece.”

The opera features a spy, named simply the Agent, who has done a career’s worth of work for an unnamed organization and is now on trial facing three interrogators, one superior and two more junior. Through a series of obscure responses to them, sometimes resembling personal or real estate advertisements and sometimes psychoanalytic sessions, the Agent relates four stages of her biography in reverse chronological order, seemingly revealing what led her to a life of espionage.

The taut braiding of speech and singing in “eL/Aficionado,” often performed in double time over the 72-beats-per-minute pulse of the accompaniment, would seem to allow for little creative variation. But while Thomas Buckner portrayed the Agent as a sullen figure expressing an almost ghostly contrition for his deeds, Butcher’s interpretation adds a defiant tone, as if the Agent is as confused as the audience as to why her work should be subject to scrutiny. A line like “Can you blame me for being skeptical? A mere boy. I don’t think he was 10 years old” turns from Buckner’s desperate appeal into a confident avowal.

Ashley was a fan of spy novels, particularly those of John le Carré, but he notes in the libretto that “eL/Aficionado” is “not a spy story” and that the audience should be aware that, as the Agent’s story unfolds, the events acquire an increasing air of unreality.

Even so, the espionage trappings are significant in a work that makes up a quarter of Ashley’s tetralogy “Now Eleanor’s Idea,” which in its entirety is an allegory for American westward expansion. Johnson recalled that when she first came to know him, in the mid-1970s, Ashley was fascinated and troubled by the C.I.A.-orchestrated Chilean coup of 1973, which brought about the installation of Augusto Pinochet. She believes that the Spanish title of “eL/Aficionado,” which translates to “amateur” or “hobbyist,” is a nod to those events.

One of the work’s four sections, “My Brother Called” — “brother” is a tradecraft term for a dependable operative — is an extension of an installation piece that Ashley had produced for a 1977 show at New York University. It consisted of stacks of Spanish-language newspapers arranged in a grid resembling city blocks, with a spot-lit telephone in the center. Ashley periodically called the phone, which filled the room with a mixture of his own indecipherable speech, Latin American music and sounds from a television.

In “eL/Aficionado,” the Agent describes that piece and claims that “the meaning of the scene is impossible to describe” — as if to suggest that Ashley himself was unsure exactly what role he and other artists played in the country’s broader Cold War project.

That ambiguity is one of many; the enveloping aura of mystery is the opera’s real achievement. Devoid of chase scenes, dead drops, tidy resolutions and most other familiar tropes of espionage narrative, the Agent’s swirling relation of images and memories — whose relevance even she is unable to gauge — creates an atmosphere of pure paranoia. In our age of fractured reality, mass surveillance and shocking regime changes, that quintessential 20th-century feeling, and the opera that makes use of it, are ripe for reappraisal.

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