Time and genre evaporate in Elsewhere, a multimedia “cello opera” premiering Oct. 11 at Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, N.C., then traveling to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Oct. 17–20. Created by super-cellist Maya Beiser and iconoclastic director Robert Woodruff, Elsewhere is performed by Beiser and vocalist Helga Davis, who enact a conversation between Lot’s nameless Wife, of Old Testament fame, and the gentle protagonist of the 1938 prose-poem I Am Writing to You from a Far Off Country, by Belgian surrealist writer Henri Michaux. The two characters—backed up by a film by Peter Nigrini and four dancers choreographed by Karole Armitage—bear witness to the ends of their worlds and share a dialogue across time and space.
Elsewhere began as Far Off Country, a recording of Michaux’s poem with music by composer Eve Beglarian, for Beiser’s album Another Place. Performed live, however, something felt missing, and Beiser enlisted Woodruff, a previous collaborator, to help turn the recitation into a stand-alone theatrical event. It soon became clear that Michaux’s heroine needed another woman to talk to. Enter Lot’s Wife, who famously defied God’s command when she looked back at Sodom’s demise and was turned into a pillar of salt. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson was commissioned to flesh out the skeletal story, and Missy Mazzoli was brought on to compose the score. The composition that resulted, called Salt, forms the second half of Elsewhere, which was workshopped in 2011 at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass. Taking the cello into theatrical territory as no one has before her, Beiser has endured criticism from classical music purists—and praise for her acting chops from other quarters.
But her dramatic flair runs deep. Since she was a little girl, on a virtuoso track and a Tiger Mom’s practice regimen, Beiser’s secret backup plan was to be a theatre or film director. In her earliest performances she paid attention to the “musical event as a complete theatrical experience,” Beiser says. With Elsewhere, she decided to go all-out.
“Maya is an instigator—she wants to invent form,” says collaborator Woodruff. “She plays cello like she’s pushing the red line on a Maserati. In rehearsal I work with Maya as I would an actor, speaking about images and precision.”
Every note in Elsewhere is supplied by the cello, which has its own character arc: “There are moments where it sounds lush and acoustic, and moments where it is processed and sounds like a wild, grungy electric guitar,” Beiser allows. But for the cellist, Elsewhere is about more than art—it’s at once a personal attack against blind obedience and a tribute to the brave women who “keep their eyes open” in the most beleaguered corners of our world. With this new work, Beiser emerges as a full-fledged theatre artist deeply invested in human harmony.
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