Guerrilla medical experiments, liquid porn, mandatory class war, courtesy executions, amateur spiritualism — these comprise the futuristic, dystopian realities of the characters in Florida Atlantic University media professor and composer Joey Bargsten's experimental, postmodern opera Anatomy of Melancholy.
Completed in 2005 as an interactive, "do-it-yourself iPod opera," the avant-garde performance piece borrows its name from an extensive 17th-century mock-medical treatise by Robert Burton, which comically attempts to undress the symptoms, characteristics, and treatment of depression. In the theatrical world of Bargsten's Anatomy, life is cheap and lived fast under the harsh scrutiny of hulking, obstinate political structures.
If this all sounds a bit heady, well, that's because it is.
"It was a very arcane, esoteric sort of performance-art piece," says the FAU professor, who was born and raised in Iowa and has been teaching in the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies for the past seven years. Now, with the backing of the Knight Arts Foundation, Bargsten reinvents his vision of a multimedia opera in 2015 in the form of MelanchoLaLaLand, presented live at Miami Beach Cinematheque on Sunday.
Written and coproduced with his life partner, Thea Zimmer, this latest work takes on new depth and dimension to include local singers and dancers interacting in a live mix with video, animation, and digital music adapted specifically with the cinematheque's unique setting in mind.
"What Thea did was sort of develop the narrative elements [of Anatomy of Melancholy] and make it much more accessible and theatrical," Bargsten says of the new opera. "[She] basically crafted an earlier version of the opera that I had created but completely revamped it and gave the whole piece a lot more of a narrative sweep — developed the characters, created action that would work well in the context of a video, and characters interacting with the video."
The production is a tragicomedy whose main character, Kenny Longtin, is vice president of the global megacorporation Melancuria Inc., which specializes in antimelancholia drugs and drive-through self-pleasuring pods. According to MelanchoLaLaLand's official website, Melancuria's target markets include "the mobs of enlightenment-challenged Americans picketing outside its gates."
With a background that spans the academic, art, and corporate spheres, Bargsten seems to draw from his own experience for inspiration, though the work is decidedly more absurd, satirical, and warped than anything from real life.
After receiving his PhD in composition from the University of Iowa 30 years ago, Bargsten taught at the University of Oregon, Georgia Tech, and other schools and also spent some time in the corporate world — specifically, at Coca-Cola and the nonprofit Care.org — all while composing acclaimed symphonic works and building award-winning, idiosyncratic digital media and music platforms.
Perhaps Bargsten's best-known work, his website Bad Mind Time, has been described by Print magazine as "a charming personal entertainment system where Joycean puns and references to game shows collide randomly in an idiosyncratic homage to twentieth century art and pop culture." The site won the audience award at the 2004 Stuttgart Filmwinter Festival for Expanded Media and has been presented in Istanbul, Penang, Athens, and London.
Taking cues from an eclectic body of previous work that also includes experimental videogames and new-media ensemble projects, the composition for MelanchoLaLaLand is "primarily electronic," says Bargsten.
"For the orchestral instruments and vocalists, I use the software called Sibelius by Avid. It's basic notation/production software. For the sonic part, I have used a bunch of electronic techniques. Most recently, I've been building my own software instruments in Pure Data, which is an open-source programming language."
Bargsten and Zimmer produced a slightly different version of MelanchoLaLaLand this past February at the Miami Light Box, in conjunction with the FilmGate Interactive Conference. The performance in that space had a bigger emphasis on live dancers. Because the Miami Beach Cinematheque is such an intimate space, says Bargsten, "there's not really enough room to do anything [live] with dancers, so everything that you see in terms of dance has been prerecorded."
This performance of MelanchoLaLaLand will have a larger emphasis on live vocalists, who will interact with the video on the screen.
"There will be three live vocalists performing on a kind of impromptu stage in front of the screen, and they are trained operatic or musical-theater singers," he says. "So it is going to be a very unique style... It's not the same as a play or a musical per se, but it's more a blending of those."
The characters, actions, and music exist primarily within the video, which features a dance sequence from the Demetrius Klein Dance Company, based in West Palm Beach.
Audience participation, though prerecorded, is another quirky element of Bargsten and Zimmer's new production. "The main character has a pet project where he's asking very arcane questions to a focus group," says Bargsten. "There will be people who will be attending the opera as sort of fictional members of that focus group."
The overall performance is structured in two acts, separated by a short film intermezzo, Casual_Sex_Fridays, featuring established mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner (one of Bargsten's former students), who has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others. The five-minute film depicts a woman working in a Melancuria office building who flees after an office shooting. To evade the shooter, she hides in a cramped supply closet as she attempts to piece together the events of the shooting and the killer's identity. With gun violence in and outside the workplace continuing to make headlines around the world, it's a pertinent if chilling addition to an already sardonic take on our not-so-distant future.
3 p.m. Sunday, September 13, at Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $12 to $15. Call 305-673-4567, or visit mbcinema.com.