March 06, 2023
Proximity Director's Note
The ultimate irony in working on a project called Proximity is that most of it was made in the era of "social distance."
We chose the name Proximity because it succinctly captures one of this performance's fundamental ideas: We are closer to our fellow human than we are often made to feel. And yet, work on these three distinct pieces had to be carried out like all other forms of collectivity during the pandemic: virtual and touch-free. So Anna Deavere Smith's process of field work and interviews all took place on Zoom, and the singers of each cast worked masked with their respective composers. Art always finds a way into existence, despite the most insurmountable-seeming obstacles—but infused with an intense longing for performers and spectators to once again share the same oxygen, our sense of mutual responsibility for each other took on a different kind of urgency.
The concept for this project, of course, pre-dates any inkling of what was to come. When Renée Fleming and Anthony Freud asked me to direct an as-yet-untitled project in 2019, the impetus was for American artists to tell new and vital stories for an American audience. How these independent works could be woven together was, at that time, unclear. I suppose the conventional approach would be to present these pieces one after the other, like Puccini's Il trittico. Although the individual works can certainly stand on their own, the notion of that clear distinction of one piece from another felt like it would doom the project to becoming a mere showcase of brilliant music and literary talent. An antithetical spirit of competition would surely creep into the work, instead of offering what opera creates best: a field of interconnected ideas much larger than the sum of its parts.
I introduced the notion of the "shuffle" into our process: the three works would start and stop and seem to interrupt and overlap with each other. I also imagined that as the evening continued, you felt the presence of one ensemble of performers, rather than discrete and divided presentations. Instead of isolation, we would create connection; rather than apposition, we would build a network of intersecting ideas. And instead of considering some stories easy to fence off, to be experienced at arm's length, with distance and a far-sightedness more like the gaze through opera glasses, these various strands begin to feel as inextricable as the kind of relation we should feel with each person who crossed our path on the way to the theater.
Opera is an engine of empathy and awe, and every production aspires to engender both. Creating one visual environment for the nesting worlds that make up Proximity involved an emphasis on fluidity and potentiality, rather than a too-fixed reality. Caroline Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke's Four Portraits zooms into the smallest human social unit — a couple — alienated by but also connected through technology. There is a graceful ambiguity in the piece's depiction of a couple absent from each other — and potentially physically lost to each other. (As one of them asks the other towards the end, "Is this a ghost story?") The curve in time offered by the arc of LED screens lets this private story live organically in and among the real stories told by Anna in collaboration with Daniel Bernard Roumain, where the seemingly intractable cycle of violence brought about by guns and gangs threatens to overwhelm innocent bystanders like Yasmine Miller. But their work also benefits from a more abstracted theatricality, rather than the closed circuit of realistic re-creation. To present these real stories on an epic scale opens up what we need most in our encounter with issues that can drive us to despair: a sense of possibility, and (most importantly) the possibility for connection. At any moment, like Arne Duncan or Curtis Toler or any of the humans that walk alongside the suffering and the bereaved, we can choose to answer the call of becoming "our brother's keeper."
At the most "zoomed out" perspective of the three, John Luther Adams set a haunting poem by John Haines that portrays a lonely Sibyl, disquieted by her view of humanity out of balance but also in tune with the universal hum of the cosmos. Meditative and enigmatic, reminiscent of Brahms's Alt-Rhapsodie or Mahler's setting of Nietzsche in the Third Symphony, Night lets us look at the turbulence of this world from a great height — the better to connect more deeply upon descending.
Of the many meanings and interpretations that might arise from putting these works together, the one that matters most is the one that speaks to you. My hope is you will accept our invitation to resist a conventional mode of watching and listening: not to judge which piece you like best, or to look for the "moral of the story" that follows a single line from start to finish. Instead, I invite you to experience with an open heart and an open mind a musical and visual depiction of our interwoven humanity.