Robert Ashley receives acclaim for Celestial Excursions

Too many people?s experiences with opera involve a phantom, an Andrew Lloyd Webber score, or an image of a robust group of women with horned hats screeching piercingly high notes. In short, a modern composer with an intelligently designed opera of soft-spoken voices is a breath of fresh air.

This year, Celestial Excursions by Robert Ashley received its first release on compact disc, and for any fan of well-constructed and deeply affecting art, it presents a gem worthy of discovery. Focused on the human condition of old age and the accumulation of experiences that burden man as he progresses through time, Excursions uses five distinct voices to represent a character that has many stories to tell and feelings to share. Ashley says that all the events in his opera came from true happenings, and that all of the experiences related to the audience he felt a connection with.

The voices chase each other and weave in and out of the musical score to form a wonderful tapestry of narratives and images. Ashley tightly controls the atmosphere of his work, and everything sounds perfectly in place. The expert ease with which the singers seem to work together sometimes creates a dreamlike experience, for each word they sing together and line they speak simultaneously is almost too good to be true.

To say that Celestial Excursions fits in the mold of the aforementioned stereotypes of opera would show a gross ignorance of the whole flexibility of the genre, for while the piece uses the typical story-put-to-music form of opera, its text and accompaniment work differently than one would think.

For one, Ashley does not use a live orchestra. His accompaniment music comes from electronic synthesizers and a pianist who interjects musically at times, but for the most part, the stage upon which Excursions is set works with five singers at desks, a silent dancer, and a pianist.

Ashley made the music enhance the text as it should, yet the electronic interjections defy a conventional notion of an orchestral setting, and in this manner it can catch many off guard. Ashley stated that one ?contribution? to his field was the songs that are ???focused? on a certain pitch....You will have to listen more carefully and re-think your idea about what ?singing? is.?

Certainly the opera treats its theme of old age extraordinarily well, and its phantasmagoric presentation of events invites the audience to apply their own experiences to the opera, and thus give it so much more depth. The opera opens with, ?A group of so-called fictitious characters is just as bad as a group of so-called real ones,? and convinces its audience to see their own lives as connect with the old men and women who now can only spend time reflecting upon what has passed them.
The elderly men and women of this piece who tell their stories of sadness change in the first and third acts of this opera. The second act involves a discussion between four old men and women and their counselor at an assisted living facility about the elderly desire to lift a ?burden.? Ashley stated that this burden is old age, and in the opera the counselor points out that everyone must bear this burden. The discussion involves many witty cultural references that help lighten the burden, but it keeps itself meaningful and well structured.

Ashley?s stream-of-consciousness approach to the stories smacks of a James Joyce novel, and this can scare many away from his work. The key to unlocking it is an open mind. Ashley wrote such a strong libretto with deep emotion that shirking it for its unconventional prose would make one miss so much.

Having written over 50 hours of opera in his 75 years of living, Robert Ashley will continue to present more innovations to the opera world. He has written two new librettos for operas that will premiere in New York in 2007. Even at an old age that Celestial Excursions addresses, Ashley keeps trying to push the envelope. ?Composing is like computer programming,? he explained. ?You use what you know and then add new ideas.?