A Backwards “Crossing” in Boston

Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nightest name!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1900)

There has been much hype in the press around the 25-year-old poet and composer, Matthew Aucoin. Having collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, held conducting apprenticeships and now moving to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as given lectures at his alma mater, Harvard University, and the New York Shakespeare Society, he is frequently referred to as “whiz-kind,” “wunderkind,” and capable of Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or everything at once. With much hype comes great responsibility, and after seeing his Crossing: A New American Opera last night at the Shubert Theatre is Boston, I am uncertain of what it is he thinks we expect him to live up to.

The opera was commissioned by the American Repertory Theatre as part of a series of celebrations of the American Civil War using material from Walt Whitman’s diaries. The production, running for just a week and closing tomorrow, is headed by artistic director Diane Paulus, with music and libretto by Aucoin. To be clear, my theatre-going companions were a unique sort: I attended with approximately two dozen theatre scholars, as we are all in town for a Mellon-funded program in association with Harvard. We were collectively appalled by what we had just seen for ideological and technical reasons. While each of us have our own specialties, historical periods, and aesthetic investments, we were all offended equally.

Considering this context, a disclaimer: the following comments, while a product of my thinking after post-show conversations with my companions, are entirely my own.

There is nothing that can really be said about the technical aspects of the production expect that they were unpolished and in some ways downright lazy. Four dancers of the 21-person cast were used like decorative commercial breaks between segments, lacing their expression with oddly sexualized gestures within the context of a northern hospital full of injured, male soldiers. Even I could see the uneven spacing of the choreography and the unsynchronized cannonball gestures were under-rehearsed. In general there was no clear plot elements due to the passive structure of the action: Whitman wonders and talks to the men, “healing” them while they wait for the war to end. It is enough to say that passive action produces boredom. There have been some that liken Aucoin not only to Wagner, but to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Odd since the one-dimensional score was far too loud and had none of the emotional depth that a low brass and dense woodwind section offers—hallmarks of Webber’s score construction, trained as he was on the French Horn.

It may be unfair to expect Aucoin to deploy gesamtkunstwerk, but trained as a poet first, I expected that of anything in the production, it would be Whitman’s words that would be handled best. You do get the general tonal thrust of Whitman’s oeuvre: investment in a Neoplatonic, secular model of love that treats a man and a blade of grass as equals. While drawing on Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, it selects nothing with any of the bite of war or homosexual desire to which the staging gestures but never commits to. We get in famous refrain:

What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
What ever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

over and over again, but not of the surrounding texts that demonstrates the capaciousness of emotions that indeed fills those distances between us.

It is easy to forgive clunky aesthetics like these when made up for in ideology. It is in this regard that I was floored at the seeming lack of input from outside voices directing and funding Aucoin’s project; The production seems to re-inforce every “ism” I can think of:

  • Racism: In a play about the Civil War, only one Black character has an aria in which he tells the story of the horror of his flight from slavery and into war. He does this while baptizing himself in a bucket of water at the foot of the Christ-like Whitman. (As one attended put it, there is a long moment when it is unclear whether the man would wash his feet or shine his shoes.) Whitman responds that this man’s story is inexpressible…and then immediately turns to validate a white soldiers plight but writing a letter for him. Only stories of white suffering are recordable and expressible, apparently.
  • Sexism: With three female actors but only one female role in this rather huge ensemble, do we really need more new work that writes out women? The one female part is that of a messenger, an angelic Gabriel bringing the good news that the war is over, briefly becoming the visual love object of the soldiers. At the end of the production, each of the men pick up pieces of a torn letter, but she is simply blocked to wander off the back of the stage. Apparently the future is only for men, and the horrors of war bring us to the ‘unnatural’ brink of homosexuality.
  • Ableism: In war hospital, there is comparatively little blood, dirt, vomiting, or any signifiers that might produce disgust. This is not to mention the general anesthetizing of war in the hermetically sealed hospital cabin, where a few crutches and a speedy wheel-chair stand-in for trauma. More aggravating still is the slow disappearance of the performance of injury when dance numbers are called for.
  • Heteronormativity: The female dancer is blonde and blue-eyed, serving in a flashback of heteronormative, not to mention racially un-mixed, love that was destroyed by this war over rights.  This is not to mention the hyper-caste staging of a homosexual encounter between Whitman and a rebel spy: they cuddle on a cot for less than a minute, never kissing, before immediately asking for forgiveness. Both men essentially die for it, and the spy-narrative provides a Judas-and-Christ dynamic that the recurring rhetoric of “healing” then jams down our throats.

Aside from the badly deployed Christian allegory of Whitman as our American Jesus, discrimination against the gay and Black communities are not and furthermore should not be comparable. (Full disclosure: I consider myself Catholic.) Sorrow is not comparable, and to do so is an insult to the histories of struggle for both those communities. All the worse, those communities were and are subjected to violence and discrimination by largely Christian communities that the opera valorizes. That the production concludes with the twelve soldiers, or Whitman’s “disciples,” returning to the stage in modern dress to a libretto peppered with September 11th citations, hijacking Whitman’s poetry to suggest we are all ahistorical soldiers and the plight is the same, made my skin crawl with the overt monetizing of national trauma linked with Christian dogma.

I suppose you can’t blame the kid necessarily; in the internet age, we simply have to make our mistakes in public. And if the opera was reproducing the stereotypes as historical artifacts as a point of critique, there may have been something to this. While it is only running for a week, the commissioned piece was in production since October and with the large set and orchestra, this was clearly a pricey production by ART and the Citibank Performing Arts Center. More unsettling is the direction by ART’s artistic director who happens to be one of the few women in similar positions across the country. The institutional associations with Harvard—to which ART is attached and from which Aucoin received his undergraduate training—beg the stereotypes of conservative elitism we wish weren’t true of one of our leading voices in higher education. Is this the new voice of American art, representative of our hopes, desires, and cares? What is it, then, between us, indeed.