The Play's Not The Thing

Go for the music, not the theater, in AMTF's latest offering.

By Cary Mazer

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

American Music Theater Festival, MTI Theater, 37th and Chestnut Sts., through June 16, 893-1145.

In case you were wondering, Ricky Ian Gordon's new opera, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, isn't a drama that alludes metaphorically to the Buddhist sacred text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Nor is it a drama that presents parables in which doctrines from The Tibetan Book of the Dead are represented allegorically. Nor is it a drama in which characters analyze or debate The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

For the record, the text of Gordon's opera, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, IS The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the philosophical text that Tibetan Buddhists read aloud to loved ones as they are dying, and continue to read aloud for the next 49 days, during which time the dead, not yet reincarnated, can hear the voices of the living and can still learn how to let go of life, to let go of the body, and choose the right species and person for reincarnation.

Gordon first became interested in The Tibetan Book of the Dead a year ago, when he and his AIDS-afflicted partner were seeking new sources of consolation. He then learned that playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie had already written and staged a dramatic version of the book in 1983, with the help of his Tibetan teacher, and that van Itallie was willing to collaborate on a musical version. Gordon then found a conductor (Charles Prince), who announced that he was a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. A co-commissioned work soon followed, from the Houston Grand Opera (where the piece premiered last month) and the American Music Theater Festival.

If you saw Tina Landau's rather banal States of Independence at AMTF a few years ago, you'll certainly remember Gordon's music, particularly the final moments in which all the American-Revolutionary characters join the contemporary teenager who has dreamed herself, Dorothy-like, back into the 18th century in singing a soaring, complex, concerted ensemble set to the text of the Declaration of Independence.

That ensemble piece proved that Gordon could write glorious music to the telephone directory if he wanted to; and sometimes, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it sounds as if he has.

It's hard to tell from the opera how van Itallie had dramatized the material back in 1983, for there's little or no drama here. On a broad black stage, with a picture-window opening at the back (designed by Allison Koturbash), seven singers dressed in suits and gowns in various shades of black and gray (by Laura Patterson) sit at the bedside of a dying woman (Jonita Lattimore).

The moment of death comes soon, after which the silent woman, now dead, traverses the stage, wandering in the world of the dead, catching fleeting glimpses of a small child (Elise A. Nelson) carrying a small suitcase and dressed in a bright red dress and hat (herself as a child? her spirit? the body of the next person her reincarnated spirit will inhabit?). Meanwhile the seven singers warble advice at her from The Tibetan Book of the Dead (e.g. "Don't escape the rainbow dance of your own mind") while they play with plates of food, bright blue fishing rods, red sun reflectors, etc., and the backdrop beyond the opening at the back of the set (lit by Scott Zielinski) changes from one bright color to another.

The playwright and the director, Marcus Stern, substitute images for action. These images are vivid (a figure aiming his revolver at the Dead, before putting it in his own mouth and firing; the Dead lying on a psychiatrist's couch; singers gliding by on a conveyer belt upstage like conversing figures in a Spike Lee movie; etc.), but they have no story to tell, unless it is that being dead means being stuck in a primary-color world with a bunch of opera singers. And poor Lattimore has nothing to do but look fearful and startled while people sing at her and put their forefingers to her temples.

Fifty minutes into the 90-minute piece the woman is finally given something to sing, and Lattimore does so, gloriously. And once the woman has chosen the body for her passage back into life, the initial stage picture reforms as a scene of birth instead of death, the full company of singers (Beth Clayton, Gabriel Gonzales, Jill Grove, Nicole Heaston, Frank Hernandez, John McVeigh and Eric Owens) open their throats as the music soars, and we're reminded of just how magnificent Gordon's music can be.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is, to my ear, an interesting piece of music (City Paper classical music critic Peter Burwasser may or may not agree -- see sidebar); but it's more an oratorio than a theater piece.

Even so, as a major piece of new music, The Tibetan Book of the Dead almost begins to salvage what has been for a AMTF an artistically disastrous season.