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The New Yorker
OPERA AS HISTORY by ALEX ROSS
The night before the "Sophie's Choice" première, the Hebbel Theatre, in Berlin, staged Steve Reich's "Three Tales." This work, too, challenges our preconceptions of what an opera stage can sustain. A high-tech operation involving voices, instruments, recordings, and video images, "Three Tales" conjures up, in the space of about an hour, the crash of the Hindenburg, the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. On paper, it looks to be a typical avant-garde hootenanny, decipherable only to initiates. But it is a major work, a sneaky sort of tragic masterpiece, whose sounds and images haunt the mind for days. I saw it on the first icy, Siberian night of the Berlin winter, and I found myself consumed by a mounting sense of dread, such as one experiences during only the most intense evenings of theatre. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about "Three Tales"—is there a faint echo of Poe in the title?—is that Reich seems to be mourning a catastrophe that has not yet taken place. It is as if a superior, sensitive robot mind were looking to the time when the human race begins to be obliterated by machines.
"Three Tales" has received immediate worldwide attention—there have been productions in New York, Paris, London, Vienna, and elsewhere—because Reich is the most original musical thinker of our time. Minimalism in its classic form was essentially his invention, but for him it was only a beginning. In the past decade and more, Reich has been developing ideas about how speech generates melody and rhythm, and he has built up a series of works—"Different Trains," "The Cave," and now "Three Tales"—from musically suggestive fragments of recorded voices. The technique resembles Janácek's assimilation of ordinary Czech conversation in operas such as "Jenufa" and "The Cunning Little Vixen"; in Reich, as in Janácek, speech-melody creates an extraordinary transparency, so that whatever voice or mood or psychology is under examination hovers right in front of you. "Different Trains" is Reich's Holocaust piece, and, in its infinitely mournful montage of survivors' voices, string-quartet figures, and the sounds of trains, it says as much in thirty-five minutes as "Sophie's Choice" does in four hours.
In "Three Tales," as in many previous pieces, Reich has worked in close collaboration with the video artist Beryl Korot, his wife and creative partner. There is no staging as such, though from time to time the singers move ritualistically from one position to another. The action is in the images, which start, stop, slow down, and repeat in unpredictable rhythms. The Hindenburg burns and crashes so many times that it becomes an abstraction of fire, with all the shock of the image bled away. The episode about Bikini Atoll is concerned less with the atomic explosion than with the evacuation of King Judah's people from the island: the procession of their livestock looks like the one to Noah's Ark. Several leitmotivs move through all three sections: the low hum of the Hindenburg's engines becomes the roar of a B-29 bomber named Dave's Dream, and the ominous drone recurs in the final section, as Reich and Korot present fragments of interviews with an array of scientific experts, some of whom are straight-facedly discussing the possibility of a superhuman race of clones.
The music of "Three Tales" works on the ears in an almost subliminal way. On first encounter, it seems static and didactic: this was my reaction on hearing a preliminary version of the Hindenburg section, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1998. I did not realize how Reich's harmony, with its ever-changing masses of suspended tones, would escalate tension over the hour-long span. These fraught and unresolved chords are agents of dramatic irony, foreshadowing, like Verdi's or Wagner's chords of fate, a bad end; they give a doomy ring to the overconfident pronouncements of Reich's "characters," who include a pompous newsreel announcer extolling the Hindenburg, a United States Army spokesman assuring us that atomic destruction will shortly be turned to "the benefit of all mankind," and a "cybernetics professor" named Kevin Warwick, who says, "The human body is extremely limited. I would love to upgrade myself."
The "Three Tales" company—consisting of the members of the Ensemble Modern and the singers of Synergy Vocals, all under the direction of Bradley Lubman—performed like a flawless machine. There was, perhaps, a certain paradox in this feast of precision: even as the composer casts doubt on technology, he avails himself of the latest advances. But Reich's high-tech manipulations are always rooted in the singsong cadences of human voices, so that the entire work moves with the unpredictable energy of a living thing. What is more, "Three Tales," for all its unemotive sleekness, emerges as a surprisingly fervent morality play, pointing a minatory finger not so much at technology itself as at the Faustian hubris that drives it forward. Some of the scientists interviewed in the "Dolly" section do their best to act the part of Mephistophelian villains, their voices dripping with pitiless hauteur. Reich and Korot appear to amuse themselves by replicating these august thinkers' faces on dozens of screens, subjecting their voices to audio surgery, and, on occasion, sending them into a slowed-down, slurry trance, so that they sound like Hal in "2001."
But this is not a farce. Right at the end, there is a chilling little duet for humanity and technology, as Cynthia Breazeal, of M.I.T., converses with a sweet-faced, dulcet-voiced robot named Kismet. "Maybe you'll play with your yellow toy?" she coos, as if talking to a toddler. Kismet shoots her a cool, withering look. Curtain.
28 May 2002
Three Tales, Museumsquartier, Vienna
Hi-tech tales for a weird, wired world
Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's finally completed Three Tales received its premiere performances in Vienna in mid-May in the Museumsquartier; part of the Vienna Festival, which had also instigated the co-commissioning of this work's predecessor, The Cave, more than a decade earlier. The performance I saw struck me as a considerable vindication of the approach that this composer/video-artist partnership has taken to music theatre; one of the further 21 performances of Three Tales worldwide this year would be well worth checking out.
Those who have seen only The Cave will be amazed not only at the technological advances of Three Tales, but also by the imaginative ways in which this husband-and-wife team has capitalised on the resulting flexibility. Some who saw "Hindenburg," the first of the Three Tales (which played in an unfinished version at the Barbican in 1997 and then complete at the Huddersfield Festival the following year) considered that this lacked any properly critical approach towards its documentary material. They, too, may now be impressed by the subtlety and depth of critique with which the succeeding two parts of Three Tales, "Bikini" and "Dolly", integrate images and sounds to make compelling dramatic structures.
In The Cave, Reich and Korot offered a broad-canvassed meditation on their Jewish heritage, with interview and other video footage presented on multiple screens on a gantry that also incorporated the musicians themselves. Technically, the work presented both compositional and presentational problems that made it unwieldy as a model. The talking-heads footage determined the modality and tempo of Reich's music, making long-range musical planning difficult. And The Cave was not only lengthy but alsoexpensive to present.
Technology is itself the subject of Three Tales; or rather, what Reich and Korot call reflections "on the growth and implications of technology during the 20th century". While "Hindenburg" had dealt with the Zeppelin airship of that name and its crash in New Jersey in 1937, the subject of "Bikini" is the atom-bomb tests at Bikini atoll between 1946 and 1954, and that of "Dolly" the sheep cloned in Scotland in 1997.
With deliberate irony, Three Tales takes advantage of ever-advancing technology to examine and criticise the ways in which technology itself is used. These advances permit not only greater integration of music and image, with synchronisation exact or not as desired, but also the use of a single screen on which a variety of different kinds of images, still and moving, can be presented. The result is a work in which much more can happen at once, or at least in more subtle combinations and, in particular, juxtapositions; as a consequence, Three Tales is much shorter than The Cave.
As in The Cave, the players and singers are vital components of the stage picture. The former (exquisitely lit by Matthew Frey in Nick Mangano's production) reflect on the screen action like a Greek chorus. In Vienna, these roles were taken by 10 superlative musicians from Ensemble Modern and five splendid singers from Synergy Vocals, all conducted by Bradley Lubman. Three Tales lasts 65 minutes, each act longer than the last (now that "Hindenburg" has, to its advantage, been cut down to form a prologue), presenting a dramatically evolving sequence of considerable impetus as well as moment-to-moment impact. "Bikini," the first of the two new tales, has a much more compelling dramatic shape than "Hindenburg." Its tensions accumulate on several visual levels simultaneously, as footage of the islanders and the paraphernalia of their US interlopers combines with the countdown to nuclear explosion, two different stories of the creation of Man and Woman from the Book of Genesis (drummed out on stage and screen) and much else besides. The build-up to the close of this tale is especially impressive. "Dolly" brings us forward to the present day, and returns to the talking heads that dominated The Cave; Dolly the sheep herself makes just a brief, amusing appearance. Here, Reich and Korot have assembled a cast of scientists who are leading figures in their fields. Richard Dawkins and Rodney Brooks, among others, leap from the screen with personalities that are gradually revealed as the action unfolds. While the sometimes scary opinions of these powerful people on the future of genetic and computer research are faithfully conveyed, "Dolly" leaves us in no doubt about how Reich and Korot regard either the scientists or the rabbi who intervenes to put a very different perspective on matters. With every interview sample in this tale manipulated in pitch or speed, the same tempo is preserved throughout, with a consequent gain in rhythmic intensity that helps banish any worries that the scientific debate itself will overwhelm the work's artistic integrity.
The persistent freeze-framing and sudden modifications of voices are sometimes a little irritating, as is the use of extensive repetition of key words, for instance, "machine". But Korot's painterly manipulation of her documentary material (positively Gauguin-like in "Bikini") and the way in which the later stages of "Dolly" revisit images from all three acts help to make both new tales subtle, absorbing experiences.
And Reich has written some of his finest music of the last 20 years for Three Tales. Now in control of the structure via a typically rigorous ground plan for tonality and tempo, he also contributes tellingly to the evolution of each tale's dramatic shape, providing some fine string music along the way. Three Tales' combination of vividly imaginative fast music and dark, urgent lyricism can also be experienced in his 1999 Triple Quartet, heard last Tuesday in its London premiere in a recital at the Barbican Centre by the Kronos Quartet. With both Reich and Korot currently on top form, a third music-theatre work is eventually to be expected, in addition to the various small-scale instrumental projects that the composer has up his sleeve for the immediate future.
Three Tales will be at the Barbican Centre, London (020-7638 8891) on 18-21 Sept, and will be televised on BBC 4. A DVD is planned. Reich's Triple Quartet is available on Nonesuch 79546
How everything changed.
A new, pioneering 'opera' by minimalist composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot was inspired by three of the 20th century's greatest technological milestones. They talk to Peter Culshaw.
Steve Reich has often been described as America's greatest living composer, and with good reason. However posterity judges his work, there's no doubt that his minimalist pieces from the early Seventies - among them Drumming and Clapping Music - shifted the axis of contemporary music. Their impact was felt across the board, not just on fellow "serious" composers Michael Nyman and John Adams, but on everyone from disco producers to American indie rockers including Sonic Youth.
What Reich did was to provide a way out of the atonal academic orthodoxy of the time and the complex electronics of composers such as Stockhausen. ("I wanted to go back to wood, skin and metal," he says.) Reich's innovation was a development of West Coast composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley, with strong influences from West African drumming (he studied percussion in Ghana), Indonesian gamelan and such medieval composers as Perotin. And, unlike his fellow minimalist Philip Glass, whose prolific output has resulted in patchy work, Reich's critical standing has remained high.
His latest work is a case in point. Created with video artist Beryl Korot (who lives with Reich), and described by the duo as a "meditation on 20th-century technology", Three Tales is typically ambitious and thought-provoking, opening up intriguing possibilities for 21st-century opera.
I meet Reich and Korot in Amsterdam the morning after a party that was held by the Holland Festival in honour of the piece, which was one of its main attractions.
"We'd been asked by the Vienna Festival to come up with a piece about the 20th century," he says, "and it seemed to us that the most significant thing about the century was the technology, which changed everything. I mean, my father, who was born in 1914, used to tell me about the gas lighting in New York City."
The piece is in three sections: the first, "Hindenburg", is about the crash of the airship in 1937. "It was the first big technological disaster to be captured on film," says Reich. "No one was filming when the Titanic went down." The second section, "Bikini", is about the atomic tests in the Pacific atoll ("several people asked me why we were working on something about women's swimwear"), and the third, "Dolly", is about the famous cloned sheep. While the first two use archive material, the last required Reich and Korot to interview numerous scientists and others about the impact of technology on humanity.
Three Tales is the result of four years' full-time work. It is only 65 minutes long, but is so packed with visual and musical information that it would need several viewings to digest it. At first sight, what strikes you most is the freshness of the archive material: the way the Hindenburg disaster is edited for video and set to music lends it something of the immediacy of a modern disaster such as September 11.
The "Bikini" section, though, seems the most powerful. We don't actually see the bomb go off, but there's moving imagery of the Bikini islanders, who were forcibly moved from their island, and some extraordinary slow-motion footage of palm trees vaporising, coloured by Korot almost as if it were a Gauguin painting, and scored to some of the saddest music Reich has composed. This is Paradise Destroyed, the Fall captured on video and set to music. When the countdown zero, Reich expands the word to chilling effect.
"Beryl insisted that we don't show the images of the bomb and the mushroom cloud," he says, "which was right, because to set music to that could have been bombastic. Sometimes understatement has a more powerful emotional impact."
Three Tales does, however, have a comic side - especially in the "Dolly" section, which features a cute robot and repeated, cut-up or distorted versions of what the scientists say. Richard Dawkins, saying that we are all machines programmed by genes, is made to look smug and simplistic in his certitudes. So, has Reich turned satirist?
"I don't think we are editorialising," he replies, "merely bringing out the character of our interviewees. And Dawkins is" Reich pauses, apparently thinking of something diplomatic to say, "a strong character".
Reich himself has become more religious as he has grown older. Now 65, he regularly goes to synagogue (although Korot describes it as "an unconventional synagogue").
"I'm not denying there is truth in what Dawkins or, more importantly, Darwin says," explains Reich, "but this is how the divine manifests itself. In Judaism, we don't go in for miracles. The point is, you look at the complexity of the world and think, how the hell does it keep going for five minutes? That is the big miracle."
From his earliest pieces, such as It's Gonna Rain (1965), which used a loop of a preacher talking about the end of the world, to Three Tales, there has been an apocalyptic element in Reich's work. After an interview he did in 2000, warning of the possibility of an Islamic terrorist attack in New York, it is hard not to take his prophetic stance rather seriously.
One of the triggers for Three Tales, says Reich, was a quote from the poet William Carlos Williams: "Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to realise his wishes. Now that he can realise them, he must either change them or perish."
I make the obvious point that it's precisely the wonders of technology that have enabled them to make the piece. "Of course," says Korot, "it would be absurd for us to be anti-technology. I can do so much more than I used to on video."
"We are simply saying that we're at a point where we really need to think about what the technology is for," adds Reich, "and what we may have lost through it." Such as? "This may seem like a small example, but I used to have about 40 telephone numbers memorised. Now they are memorised for me. You know the saying: use it or lose it. We are using fewer parts of the brain and are going to suffer for that as a species."
With its forward-driving repetitions and use of trademark key modulations and canons, Three Tales is in some ways closer to such earlier Reich pieces as Music for 18 Musicians than more recent efforts. Certain technical innovations have also helped the piece. In 1967, Reich wrote about a work he would like to do in which he would "very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original length without changing its pitch or timbre at all", something that was impossible then but which he uses to great effect now.
Three Tales is in fact the second Reich/Korot collaboration after The Cave, which explored the roots of Christianity, Judaism and Islam through the story of Abraham. ("We have to think of big enough ideas to keep the juices flowing for the several years it takes to work on them," says Reich.) The new work, though, is more concise, and seems more direct and elegant than its predecessor. Reich explains that the interviewees in The Cave were nearly all religious figures whose words he felt should be treated with respect.
"In The Cave, I followed the speech exactly - as they spoke, so I wrote. The result was a constant changing of key and tempo which slowed down the momentum of the piece and made it difficult to play. With Three Tales, I thought, OK - prima la musica."
'Three Tales' is at the Barbican, London EC2, from Sept 18 to 21. Tickets:
020 7638 8891
Three Tales - Barbican, London EC1
Highlight of a busy week was the British premiere of Steve Reich's Three
Tales in the Barbican Theatre. A collaboration with his wife, the video-artist
Beryl Korot, this synthesises an urgent, emphatic musical commentary (from
the dazzling Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals) with busy, at times angry,
video images of three seminal moments in recent technological history:
the crash of the Hindenburg airship in 1937, the atom-bomb tests on Bikini
atoll in 1946 and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1997. The 80-minute
work's impact grows hermetically with each section, climaxing with sound-bites
from the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould in counterpoint
to sardonic sonics from Reich, both electrified and electrifying, cumulatively
suggesting that man should not try to play G-d (as he or she is spelt
throughout). Without the visuals, Reich's music might grow a mite relentless;
without the blistering accompaniment, Korot's brilliant multiple-imagery
would be inexplicable. Married together in art as in life, they may just
have invented the first new twenty-first-century art form.
Flight and fire, Bikini bombs, Dolly sheep - the 20th century is an epic in triumph and tragedy, symbols and sounds in 'Three Tales,' a couple's documentary video opera
We have become accustomed to the choreography of cataclysm. Sept. 11 brought us, among other grotesqueries, the awful beauty of explosion, edited, looped and slowed until a split second of violence acquired an elegant rhythm. It's hard not to see the first part of "Three Tales," an onscreen opera with music by Steve Reich and video by Beryl Korot, through post-Sept. 11 eyes, even though the event they deal with, the explosion of the German zeppelin Hindenburg over Lakehurst, N.J., took place in 1937 and their treatment of it was substantially complete by 1998.
A vast airborne craft glides quietly, triumphantly above the spires of New York City before bursting spectacularly into flame, the whole sequence stitched into a show that, like television news, blends narrative and pattern, actual footage with artful construction. Reich's well-riveted, percussive music, sometimes girded by a turbine drone, supports the articulate canvas that Korot made out of vintage clips, headlines, digital graphics and talking heads. If "documentary video opera" ever becomes a recognized genre, "Three Tales" may be seen as its first mature incarnation.
The 65-minute piece, which comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Wednesday, is a compact little epic in three acts, each one a chapter from the history of technology in the 20th century. The troubles and exhilarations of modern technology are well-trodden turf, but Reich and Korot, who are married, have created a work of hypnotic nobility, an interlocking of live music and digital video that is about the interlocking of machinery and flesh.
The crash of the Hindenburg was the first disaster caught on film, and the first section of the work, also called "Hindenburg," shows the industrial era immolating itself, then rising again like a Phoenix from the embers, or the transatlantic airplane from the charred ruins of the zeppelin. Reich describes himself as irresistibly drawn to the symbolism of "a huge hydrogen gasbag with swastikas on its sides flying over New York City and exploding in New Jersey." But the piece focuses less on the Hindenburg's destruction than on its creation, well-documented in films that were intended to show the awesomeness of many people's labor accumulating into a nation's technological might.
Reich and Korot sat recently across the dinner table of their lower Manhattan apartment, while a toddler grandchild kept slipping happily in and out of sight.
"I was fascinated with the beauty of these workers climbing on the scaffolding," says Korot. "They were like dancers in their natural grace and motion."
She laboriously extracted each figure, frame by frame, from its photographic surroundings so that she could send the men clambering across a digital frieze of her design. To Reich, the metalworkers, made antlike by the zeppelin's bulk, looked like Nibelungen, the malevolent but industrious creatures of Wagner's four-opera mythic saga "The Ring of the Nibelungen." In an uncharacteristic act of musical appropriation, he borrowed from Wagner the startlingly Reich-like "Anvil Chorus," in which the Nibelungen forge a mythic sword.
The second act, "Bikini," deals with the atomic age - not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which Reich and Korot deemed too familiar - but the U.S. government's well-publicized and now dimly remembered hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific coral atoll between 1946 and 1954. It was an act that claimed no lives but dislocated 167 islanders to supposedly temporary homes where they and their progeny still live.
"World War II is over, it's the beginning of the Cold War, and what has become the most powerful nation on Earth does this test, without malice but with utter myopia," says Reich.
This is, in a way, the slow, elegiac movement of the work, cycling through scenes of mystified islanders, tense American sailors, the bomber's inexorable humming and the sharp syllables of the countdown, ending with the mournful scene of palm trees whipped by a nuclear blast.Images and music emerged together, the material ricocheting down the hallway between the two home studios. "We'd come up with the content together," says Korot. "Then we would go off to our studios knowing that we'd be dealing with, say, the B-29 bomber. He'd work on the sound, I'd work with the images, and when he had a couple of minutes of music, he'd send them to my computer, and I'd use those as cut points." The couple had collaborated before, on "The Cave," a mammoth multichannel video work about the Middle East, requiring an elaborate and expensive apparatus to perform. This time, digital editing software developed in the 1990s allowed Korot to create and manipulate complex pictures on her computer and then simply project them on a single screen.
"There was never a time in the history of image-making when you could bring all these sources into a single frame," she says. "You have enormous control."
Reich, too, required a more exact way of integrating documentary sounds into the flow of his music. In earlier works using taped speech, he had allowed the natural hiccupping of talk to set the tempos and shape the rhythms of his music. Now, though, he could use the computer to stretch or compress sound bites as he wished, fitting them exactly into the pulse he set. The result is a less fitful, lurching fabric than he could ever get before, and it makes the talky finale work.After "Hindenburg" and "Bikini," both of which culminated in apocalyptic fireballs, Part 3, "Dolly," turns toward conversation, taking off from the case of the cloned Scottish sheep and venturing into the genomic age, where the stuff of life can be manipulated and intelligence made from scratch. It's a world in which the distinction between the fabricated and the organic has begun to break down, and where fantasy and uncertainty still overpower knowledge. Working with few dramatic visual sources but hours of interviews with prominent scientists and thinkers, Reich and Korot constructed an ensemble piece. The scientists utter their thoughts at a deliberate, operatic pace, their compact phrases interrupted by music and embellished by aria-like repetitions. "We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes," the intense Oxford geneticist Richard Dawkins says, and then repeats in an exulting loop: "Machines, machines, are machines."
"Three Tales" ends with an intimate moment between Kismet, an adorable robot, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist who made it, a perky young woman named Cynthia Breazeal. Like a large, whirring metal infant, the robot coos at its creator and imitates her, its chips absorbing her body language and tone of voice and transmitting mimicry to its motors. As she cocks her head, so does the machine. When she suggests it might want to play with a yellow toy, it nods in an eerily disembodied version of joy.
"Cynthia's not an evil genius," Reich points out. "She just loves making robots. And as she said to me, 'When you're trying to make a baby, you have no idea what's involved.'" To Reich and Korot, Brezeal is one of the wildly ranging personalities who - chillingly, enthrallingly and with infinite patience - put their fantasies into practice. "The question is, Who are these people?" Reich says.
And because that is the way they work, it was Korot who finishes the thought: "They're our actors. We created them."
WHERE & WHEN "Three Tales," a "digital documentary video opera" by Steve
Reich and Beryl Korot, is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave
Festival Wednesday and Friday, and next Saturday, performed by the Steve
Reich ensemble and conducted by Bradley Lubman. At the BAM Howard Gilman
Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn. call 718-636-4100, or go to
4 stars Barbican, London
Steve Reich's Three Tales is his latest multimedia collaboration with his wife, the artist Beryl Korot. Each of the three sequences, for live instrumentalists, singers, and video projection, is a parable of man's Faustian pact with technology.
The first dramatises the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin, the second is based on American atomic experiments on Bikini atoll, and the final tale muses on the ethics of cloning and artificial intelligence.
Although there are vestiges of conventional narrative in the piece - like the countdown to the ignition of the A-bombs in the Bikini atoll sequence, or the construction and collapse of the Hindenburg - most of the story telling is oblique and abstract.
Korot's videotrack is a rich montage of newsreel, talking heads, and electronically manipulated imagery. There are some striking moments, like the slow-motion repetitions of the Hindenburg's destruction, or the fragments of text from Genesis that punctuate the atomic devastation of Bikini atoll.
Reich's music is a tapestry of rhythmic ostinatos and repeated fragments of melody, often derived from the speech inflections of the interviewees on film. The score is conducted with clockwork precision by Bradley Lubman, and performed by the Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals. The singers, dressed in metallic suits, comment impassively on the devastating events.
The interaction between the music and the visuals creates a distance from the emotional intensity of the subject matter, and allows the audience space to reflect on the costs of technology.
Yet the most powerful moments of Three Tales come in the final part, where Korot's images of dividing cells and robots match the repetitiveness of Reich's music.
From the seemingly unpromising starting point of scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould discussing the finer points of genetics, Reich and Korot create a sinister, gripping drama.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the conscience of the piece, with his refrain that "every creature has a song".
The final, chilling image is of a young research student talking to a grotesque robot, made up with false hair and eyelashes to look like a metallic, skeletal Barbie.
Without patronising, Three Tales offers a timely dramatisation of our vexed relationship with science.
It's Dolly, the bel canto sheep
Composer Steve Reich's video opera uses technology to warn against itself
Most composers, offered the opportunity to write an opera, would jump at the chance. After all, isn't opera the most exalted musical idiom, capable of wrapping all other art-forms in its capacious embrace?
Not according to the American composer Steve Reich, whose new "digital video opera" Three Tales is performed at London's Barbican this week. "Back in 1980," he recalls, "Frankfurt Opera and the Holland Festival asked me, 'Would you write us an opera?' I said, 'I'm delighted to be asked, it's very flattering. But no.' I simply didn't feel sympathetic to the form which, as it comes down to us, is about bel canto voices on the stage, and an orchestra in the pit. By that time, I had stopped working with the orchestra, and I wasn't drawn to the idea of acting singers, which was kind of fundamental to opera. I had no solution."
Yet in continuing to contemplate the "problem" of opera, Reich has more or less invented a musical form that, without being operatic in any conventional sense, nevertheless suggests another approach to the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Reich himself lays no claim to such a high-falutin epithet).
Reich's new form has its genesis in one of his most celebrated compositions, Different Trains. Written in 1988 for Kronos Quartet, that piece used pre-recorded samples of people, including Holocaust survivors, reminiscing about train journeys both harmless and sinister. As he wrote at the time, "In order to combine taped speech with string instruments, I selected small speech samples that were more or less clearly pitched, and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation." This notated speech then generated the music for the string instruments, creating a densely poignant work that the critic Richard Taruskin describes as "one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium to the Holocaust".
Although various choreographers have staged Different Trains, it was conceived for the concert hall. Nevertheless it set Reich thinking; as he now recalls, "In the process of working on Different Trains, a light bulb went on in my head. I thought to myself, 'If you could see people, not just hear them; and at the same time you could see onstage musicians playing and singing: ah-ha!' This was my way into music theatre."
At this point that Reich turned to a potential collaborator, Beryl Korot, an artist whose work with video dated back to the earliest, most experimental days of that medium. Given that Reich and Korot had been married for many years, it is surprising that they had not collaborated before. As Korot explains, "In the late-1970s, I had begun to find the image-making element of video work too limited, and when Steve was writing Different Trains, I was no longer working with video. But when he asked me if I would consider collaborating, I was beginning to feel that the way technology had evolved allowed a tremendous plasticity in creating images. The computer was just beginning to interface with video, so that film, photography and drawing could all combine. What Steve proposed allowed me to bring video art to a theatrical space, and that I found exciting."
The Cave, seen in London in 1993, involved Reich's ensemble of singers and musicians sharing the stage with a bank of five video monitors, on which Korot presented a montage of images. At its heart was a sequence of interviews with Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, who were asked to respond to various questions, including "Who for you is Abraham?" Reich's music used the interviews both as libretto, and, as in Different Trains, as a musical found object. As Korot says, "We had various contorted titles for what the work was, like 'documentary-music-video-theatre', but in the end, using 'opera' simply in the sense of 'work', we call it a video-opera."
Reflecting on the shared roots and antagonisms of Arabs and Israelis, The Cave has lost none of its relevance.
Now Reich and Korot have produced another piece that, verbally, musically, visually, even politically promises to be still more complex. Three Tales contemplates three episodes from the history of 20th-century technology: the disaster that befell the Hindenburg airship in 1937; the atom bomb tests that ravaged the Bikini atoll in the years after World War Two; and the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997.
Once again, Reich's music unfolds in close symbiosis with images and sounds emerging from Korot's screen (only one screen here, not five: for Korot, that in itself is a significant technological development). But Reich is not providing the "soundtrack" for Korot's work, any more than she is "illustrating" his music. In effect, text, image and music are indivisible.
Asked whether Three Tales takes an optimistic or pessimistic view of technology and its uses, Korot responds, "That is not the way we conceived it. We're asking whether there is humility or hubris among the people who are creating this technology." Reich endorses the point: "As artists and human beings, we, like everyone else, are beneficiaries of technology. My mother has Parkinson's disease, and one of the first medical implants that comes along may well be for Parkinson's. If it works, I would put her forward for treatment.
"There are benefits in technology, and it would be insane not to pursue them, but as in every field of science, there will be unintended consequences. Our piece is a series of cautionary tales."
'Three Tales': Barbican Theatre, EC2 (020 7638 8891), September 18-21