Perfect Lives as Vidas Perfectas
Vidas Perfectas is an all-new Spanish-language version of Robert Ashley's ground-breaking “television opera” Perfect Lives (1983). With Ashley's blessing, Alex Waterman directs this all-new production, from a Spanish translation by Javier Sainz de Robles.
The singer-songwriter Ned Sublette stars as the opera’s narrator “R,” in the role originated by Ashley. Playing with him is “Buddy, The World’s Greatest Piano Player,” a unique all-piano role for Cuban virtuoso Elio Villafranca. Composer Peter Gordon, who collaborated with Ashley on the original incarnation of Perfect Lives, returns as music producer, playing live electronics and mixing. The chorus is Elisa Santiago, (appearing as Isolde, Gwyn, and Ida) and Raul De Nieves (appearing as Will, Ed, and The Captain of the Football Team).
Perfect Lives was originally commissioned for television by The Kitchen (NY) in 1979 and was completed in 1983, co-produced by The Kitchen and Channel Four in Great Britain. It was aired on Channel Four in 1983 and in 1984, and subsequently on German, Austrian and Spanish television. Parts of the seven-episode series have been seen on American cable channels and in Japan and in Australia. Perfect Lives’ innovative combination of chanting, storytelling, meditation and ecstatic revelation, challenges the ways in which we perceive the relationship between language and music. It has almost single- handedly changed the way we think about opera, television, and performance.
This powerful, musically intense reinterpretation of Ashley’s now-classic text premiered at Irondale Theater, Brooklyn, December 15-17, 2011. In its initial engagement, Vidas Perfectas offered “El Parque,” “La Iglesia,” and “El Patio de Atrás,” three of the opera’s seven half-hour episodes, in a theatrical setting, followed in 2012 by concert versions and stagings of several episodes at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge and EMP Pop Conference, and London’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and Cafe OTO.
Vidas Perfectas will begin its second production phase in 2014 at The Whitney Biennial. This marks the beginning of the filming and recording of the complete opera (all 7 episodes) in full theatrical staging. All episodes will be filmed in front of a live audience. Footage shot in Marfa, Texas in February 2014 will be mixed in with live camera feeds as part of the live television mix at the Whitney Museum.
In July 2014, the production travels ‘on location’ for theatrical stagings in Marfa, Texas and on-site performances in El Paso, TX. All 7 episodes will be compiled and edited for television in Fall 2014.
At the completion of all seven episodes, Vidas Perfectas will tour internationally, accompanied by a full recording to be released on CD and DVD.
A Brief Synopsis of Vidas Perfectas
Raoul de Noget (no-zhay’) and his friend Buddy, “The World’s Greatest Piano Player,” have come to a small town close to the border between Mexico and Los Estados Unidos to entertain at La Vidas Perfectas Lounge. Raoul, a Cuban, grew up north of the Border, and Buddy (also Cuban) grew up on the other side of the border. As one character in the opera describes Buddy once they become known in town; “There’s no doubt that the Mexican is in it. The doubt is if he’s Mexican.”
Raoul and Buddy fall in with two locals, “D” (the “Captain of the Football Team”) and his sister, Isolde. They conspire to commit the “perfect crime,” a metaphor for something philosophical: to remove a large amount of money from the bank for one day (and one day only) and let the whole world know that it is missing— crime if they are caught, art if they are not. A couple of innocents, Ed and Gwyn, head for the border with “D” and his friend Dwayne (who has trouble being understood), to elope and get married. They are, without knowing it, carrying the money (from the bank) in the trunk of the car. According to the plan, the missing money will be discovered to be back in the bank the next day.
Among the colorful characters that journey through the opera’s seven episodes are a loving pair of unnamed old people from the Home for Old People, Will (the Sheriff) and his wife Ida, who finally unravel the mystery of the crime, and Isolde who watches the celebration of the changing of the light at sundown— amid a picnic of her neighbors— and who knows that the perfect crime has been successful.
About the original production of Perfect Lives (1983)
Perfect Lives was developed musically through live performances in Europe and America. “Blue” Gene Tyranny was Ashley’s first collaborator— his keyboard melodies and harmonies defined the character of Buddy. Tyranny and Ashley performed a chamber version of the piece many times together (including at The Kitchen in early 1978). Shortly after, The Kitchen commissioned Perfect Lives as an opera for television, the live version expanded to include richly layered orchestral tapes produced by composer Peter Gordon, and vocals by Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem.
In 1980, John Sanborn recorded the basic video tracks on location in Illinois according to the templates provided by Ashley’s score. From this material, The Lessons, a preview version of the opera (based on keyboard gestures by “Blue” Gene Tyranny) was produced through the TV Lab at WNET.
In the fall of 1982, a pre-sale was obtained from Channel Four Television in the UK, making possible the completion of Perfect Lives. John Sanborn, the television director, designed an elaborate shooting and editing plan for the visual elements of Ashley’s score. The post-production was completed August, 1983 at VCA Teletronics, under the supervision of Dean Winkler, who worked with Sanborn on image processing, and was the video- tape editor. Since its premiere on Channel Four in 1984, Perfect Lives has been broadcast throughout Europe and in various cities in the United States.
Recordings of Perfect Lives are available on CD and DVD from Lovely Music.
Peter Greenaway's celebrated 1984 documentary Four American Composers: Robert Ashley is available in full on Ubuweb.