As Opera Philadelphia plans to reemerge with live, indoor performances in January, the digital season takes a broom to our collective psyche with something adventurous: high-energy K-pop.
TakTakShoo, a title meant to replicate the sound of sweeping, premieres 8 p.m. Friday with content that might be new to seasoned opera-goers but is also polished, assured, and uniquely Philadelphian.
Composer Rene Orth, librettist Kanika Ambrose, choreographer/video director Jeffrey L. Page, and mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi have assembled an audio/visual confection with buses on Market Street running backward and hooded, hip, wary-looking pilgrims entering Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City, seemingly seeking renewal and redemption. Inside, a broom-wielding shaman sung by Choi helps relieve them of their emotional baggage, singing about having a (broom) brush with heaven.
With its origins in South Korea in the ‘90s, K-pop includes hugely popular bands such as BTS and Black Pink. NPR music critic Maria Sherman observed: “K-pop is music that is stuffed but never bloated; music that is fun and meant to elicit joy when listened to and seen (K-pop is designed to be enjoyed visually as much, if not more, than it is meant to be heard).”
Genre aside, TakTakShoo has some confusing but engaging details — one person seems to have a psychic experience at her makeup table, another gyrates upside down in a deserted hallway — that shouldn’t be a deterrent from accessing the piece. It’s not much money ($10) or time (11 minutes) and repays repeated viewings by ultimately cohering and making you feel a bit younger.
And for those who still feel left behind by the end, the four charismatic dancers strip down to their underwear, which is fun.
The score is mainly electronic, which has been in opera for decades whether for special effects in Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s Aniara or frosting on the sonic cake in Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. But Orth (a graduate of both the Curtis Institute and Opera Philadelphia’s Composer in Residence program) uses electronics that allow a sense of flexibility and spontaneity, as opposed to the kind of pre-recorded tracks that can put all other elements in a straitjacket.
In contrast to her relatively conventional operas such as the locally-produced Empty the House, Orth’s K-pop mode is more buoyant in a score that’s roughly in recitative and aria form. The recitative has the hooded figures being beckoned into a murky-looking interior that could be seen as a portrayal of a dormant, disheveled mind that needs decluttering. Climbing the stairs looks traumatic for the pilgrims, though choreographic fluidity is always maintained in director Page’s overall lyrical style.
Meanwhile, Choi’s shaman experiences some cool visual transformations while singing with operatic amplitude but pop-music flexibility, supported by inflected vocal lines and arresting blasts of harmony. Of course, no single element significantly disturbs the music’s gleaming, sleek K-pop manner.
The apparent goal here is to help us feel refreshed and purged. I need six hours of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg for that to happen. But this is an upbeat pendant to our emerging operatic life. And I’m curious to know how these creators could expand this into a more full, complete story.