Gaismas Raksti: Cultural Experiences
The title of this post is based on the multimedia show we experienced last night by Shipsea, a Latvian rockstar, at the National Library, Gaismas Pils. The title of the show is “Patterns of Light” and it is meant to be the opening ceremony of the centennial celebration year as Latvia begins its 100th year of existence.
But in addition to this dose of local culture, I also went to an opera and an art show. I want to first reflect on the opera “Faust.” As some of you may know, I directed a production of “Faust” a million years ago at Ashland-Greenwood high school. Here I am, searching for any photos of this show, but it was right on the cusp of digital vs. analog photography, so I do not have any digital records of the show. Just memories. Fond memories.
The opera was basically wonderful. Tickets to the National Opera are about the same price as a movie, which just seems incredible to me. Here we saw this wonderful live symphony, and these amazing singers and costumes and set design LIVE, all for the same price as a regular old movie. The story of “Faust” is dark, I mean he sells his soul to the devil to have his youth back. But this version became even darker as the love interest, Marguerite, murders her own baby and is sentenced to death. The character of Mephistopheles was played by a bass with clown-white make up and a devilish appearance. He was just excellent to watch with his cross-dressing costume changes and weird manipulative ways.
Okay, so now that I am warmed up thinking about this classical form of performance, I need to reflect on the presentation at the National Library last night. First of all, I had no idea what to expect which is kind of fun. We showed up for the 8 p.m. show at about 7:40, and it wasn’t very crowded. In my mind, I was thinking because it was open seating, that there would be a line, and people would be fighting for the best spots near the stage. But there really was no stage.
My first clue that this wasn’t a regular rock concert was the way people were dressed. It was, as they say here, “posh.” Most of the crowd were older members of society in their fifties and sixties, and no one seemed to be concerned about getting a good spot. The Latvian National Libarary, Gaismas Pils, is a tall building with a large central hall that is open all the way to the top floor. It rises up, drawing the eye from level to level, narrower and narrower to the peak. The main floor is about the size of a large high school gym, but it is hard to estimate exactly because of the way the space feels–so empty and open.
Before the show started, we wandered around the space taking in all the fixtures as they announced that the concert would be starting soon. There was an elevated triangular shaped “stage” on one end, a giant black box in what might be called the center of the space, and some other features here and there.
When the lights went out, the music began with a small choir standing on small platforms in front of the large black box. The conductor stood high above the crowd directing the choir. The music was all in a minor key and rather dark and cacophonic. It was lovely, but there were no simple, easy to sing melodies. I would categorize the whole show as a bit challenging.
But it wasn’t just about the music. We were invited to move around the space as performance went on, and there were performers and visual elements occurring in conjunction with the music which was loosely based on the Latvian version of Jack and the Beanstalk, “Pasaka par garp pupu“. Although in this version of the story, I don’t see the devil being cut into pieces as the song lyrics seemed to say last night.
As the music continued, people began walking up invisible stairs onto the black box, and forming human sculptures. The shapes were symbolic, but I am not sure what they all meant. And some of the actors walked slowly across the top of the box, zombie-like, and down another set of invisible steps to enter the audience. They walked among us in a trance, moving fluidly and slowly through the crowd.
Rita did not like the effect, but I thought it was mesmerizing. After awhile, you weren’t sure exactly who were members of the audience and who were performers. It made me feel that I was a part of the production. People moved out of the way as I walked through the crowd, and we all looked at each other with admiration and suspicion throughout the performance.
One of the human sculptures on top of the black box seemed to make sense to me as a man and a woman seemed to give birth to a human embodiment of Latvia. I felt like I was at an Olympic opening ceremony, and I needed Bob Costas to explain the symbolism of the movements and music.
“And here we have the birth of Latvia with the pagan traditions of fire and nature combined in a spiritual movement of music based in the folk tradition of the Livonian culture.”
After the opening song, the attention turned to Shipsea who now sat in front of a synthesizer on the triangular platform with a full band. He sang new age music in a high-pitched, beautiful voice. He was the highlight of the entire performance because his music was more melodic and uplifting.
The evening was kind of a blur with all the performances going on in the midsts of the crowd, and on the various stages, and the movements and everything. The highlight of the night for me was when they dropped this giant screen down from the high ceiling of Gaismas Pils, and then projected a life-size waterfall which gave the illusion of us standing under the falling water. It was just a stunning production, and I felt like I was almost out of my body.
Then, the conductor stood on a platform in front of us and began conducting, but there was no choir. Voices rose all around me, and I looked around to see that the choir performers were standing in the crowd with us. How cool is that?
The show ended with light, as all the zombie-walkers returned down an escalator with light sabre-type tubes. They divided into three groups and made light sculptures that resembled postmodern campfires. The making of the sculptures seemed like a real chore as they struggled with these rubber bands holding the tubes together. They had to work in silence as the music played, and I felt sorry for them when the tubes did not cooperate. Each tube was then plugged into a main board which was hooked up to the sound system, so the lights were loosely synchronized to the music as it played. The effect was hypnotic.
After constructing the digital campfires, they sat around the “fires” as a lovely song about “gaisma” (light) played. I walked around to observe each group. I was hoping that the actors would break their zombie act and perhaps smile and enjoy the light that they had created, but most of them were still stone-faced.
“Now, the Latvians are demonstrating the three ancient tribes of the Baltic region before uniting into one civilization. They sit before the prehistoric campfires and now walk together up the staircase, celebrating the formation of one united country!”
Even as I write this, I know it is wrong because it appears there were four original tribes of Latvia, and the history is really complicated and uncertain. But I am going to stick with my analysis for now because it just makes some sense to me. Perhaps the performance was not meant to be historical or linear. Maybe it was more esoteric and sublime. Maybe it was just meant to be felt rather than understood. In any case, I felt like I was moved.
My main complaint was that the overall feel of the performance was DARK. The costumes were dark, most of the music was almost chilling, but the point of the performance was to begin the celebration of the Centennial. Why not break out of this dark, Eastern European winter with some bright performance that leaves us feeling bright, hopeful, and happy?
I do not know. I am still trying to figure it all out. I feel like just being there and seeing it performed was an incredible experience because I will never see anything like it again. And it was not something I could watch on t.v. or online because it was an immersive experience that required a personal presence. I also imagine that each night the show will be a little different because of the aspect of the crowd being a part of the performance. Where you stand, which way you look, what you pay attention to, these are all factors in the way you experience this type of show. It was quite three-dimensional… maybe even four-dimensional in this sense since time was also an important aspect. I felt sorry for the people with their phones out recording it because I do not think that watching the show would be very enjoyable.
At one point, when the waterfall was pouring down, I noticed that some of the actors were standing on platforms with one arm raised in the air. I joined them on the floor, and I really wished that everyone in the crowd would do the same. I wonder if that was the point? Were we supposed to engage and do some of the things that the performers were doing? At one point, they joined in a kinetic dance, were we intended to join along?
I do not know. I do not expect to ever know for sure, but at least I am left THINKING after the performance, and in that, the show was a certain success. I am looking forward to the rest of the Centennial and more cultural celebrations!
Some more pictures