The Seer of Arsenal Place.
RUTHVEN HEYSER IS nothing if not prolific: even as the last few performances of his opera The Death of Cleopatra were playing to respectable if confused audiences at Memorial Hall, he opened The Seer of Arsenal Place, a unique collaboration with the celebrated installation artist Eli “Bonkers” Johnson.
Johnson and Heyser are billing The Seer as the world’s first walk-through installation opera. Viewers enter the venue, a recently closed elementary school in Lawrenceville, and wander from room to room. In different parts of the building, different scenes have been set up by Mr. Johnson, using materials he found in the basement, and in those scenes various performers are acting out different fragments of the opera, which the audience must mentally piece together to form an idea of the whole plot.
So far the idea is intriguing, but the execution failed to live up to the idea’s potential.
In the first place, Mr. Heyser’s long-time collaborator, the poet and novelist Irving Vanderbrook-Wheedle, was not available to write the libretto, being hard at work on the last drafts of his upcoming novel Annie Lou: A Tale of the Secondary Highways of Prince William County. Mr. Heyser therefore composed the libretto himself. It is well known that Mr. Heyser speaks with an almost impenetrable Mount Washington accent, and his spelling is none of the best. The latter failing especially made the performance difficult for the singers, who were reading the score for the first time and frequently had to pause to decipher the words.
In the second place, Mr. Johnson’s installations were not up to his usual standard. Mr. Johnson is well known and deservedly lauded for his ability to take found objects and transform an ordinary place into a place with found objects in it, which often alters the aspect of the location considerably. In this case, however, the rooms were old classrooms, and the materials Mr. Johnson found in the school basement were mostly old desks, chairs, blackboards, and the like; so that, in the end, he succeeded only in making the rooms look a little bit more like classrooms.
Finally, last night’s performance was interrupted, long before most of the viewers had had a chance to see all the rooms, when Pittsburgh School District police arrived to eject the performers and the audience. The plot was therefore not clear either to this reviewer or to the members of the audience whom he was able to interview subsequently at the Public Safety Building. Tonight’s performance is scheduled for the Holy Regression Nicolaitan Orthodox Day School in Garfield, as long as the bishop doesn’t find out.