Billed a chamber opera, Thursday night’s world premiere of Wisconsin Death Trip, based on Michael Lesy’s book and adapted by Jeff Berkson and Tim Raphael, was mislabeled, disastrously. Produced as part of Georgetown University’s Theater and Performance Studies Program’s Hidden Histories: A Festival Season of New and Unseen Works, Wisconsin Death Trip offers rural scenes of the 1890s and 1980s, both times of economic hardship and despair in certain parts of the United States.
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Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip (1973)
Since the publication of Lesy’s first book, Wisconsin Death Trip, in 1973, Lesy has “used utilitarian photographs as primary historical documents, quoting them as if they were excerpts from letters or reports.” The assortment of Lesy’s visuals projected above the stage coherently reinforced the actual set and outstanding costumes. Although a compelling platform from which to base a new work, the outcome was a confusion of genre – Wisconsin Death Trip was no opera.
In the program, Derek Goldman, Artistic Director of Davis Performing Arts Center and Director of Theater and Performance Studies, harped on “the joy of witnessing the creative convergences between the sixteen actors…” Actors? Huh. No singers in this opera? He referred only to the seven pit instrumentalists as musicians. Furthermore, Goldman went on to write of the “scholarly bridges across disciplines” forged by the project, especially with Georgetown’s American Studies Program. Wonderful: however, it appears that the music department must have been overlooked in this interdisciplinary episode, as this over-amplified screamfest was musical theater through and through. Passages suitable for recitative were plainly spoken, and much of the sung text lost. Indeed, composer Jeff Berkson's biography speaks of the “ten musicals” he has written. Perhaps Georgetown could use the University of Maryland and National Gallery of Art’s successful co-production of Later the Same Evening as a model for future interdisciplinary "operatic" endeavors.
Shira Hecht, Death in Wisconsin (Georgetown Voice, January 31)