For opera singers, playing a part originally created by another artist is as common as breathing. But vocalists who specialize in contemporary works face a different challenge: inhabiting a character whose first appearance, played by another (often still living) singer, has been documented in audio or video.
When you can see and hear a role’s originator at work, presumably with the composer’s blessing, how free are you to make that role your own?
Gelsey Bell, a charismatic and fiercely intelligent performer whose résumé extends from guerrilla street theater to Broadway, has created her share of roles, not least the modest, pious Mary Bolkonskaya in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Now she will appear in a revival of Robert Ashley’s “Improvement (Don Meets Linda),” from 1985, in which the composer’s mix of sung and spoken texts and smooth electronic accompaniment advance a cryptic story of epic scope.
Ms. Bell was in the original cast of Mr. Ashley’s final ensemble opera, “Crash,” which had its premiere as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Others from that ensemble — Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder and Aliza Simons — will join her in “Improvement,” at the Kitchen in Manhattan Feb. 7-16.
In this opera Ms. Bell assumes the central role of Linda: a modern American Jewish woman (whom Ashley based on the mother of a childhood friend) abandoned by her husband, but also employed as an allegorical representation of the Jewish diaspora, starting in Spain in 1492, when Jews were expelled by royal decree, and continuing to California in the mid-20th century. The role was created by Jacqueline Humbert, an effervescent artist featured on the 1992 Nonesuch recording of “Improvement.”
Ms. Bell and Ms. Humbert discussed the perils and pleasures of being Linda in a recent conversation at the TriBeCa home of the arts administrator Mimi Johnson, Ashley’s widow, who helped produce his operas for 30 years. Ms. Humbert, in California, joined the chat by telephone. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Jacqueline, what did Ashley tell you about Linda when you were about to create this character with him?
JACQUELINE HUMBERT Obviously I was to represent the Jews from the time of the diaspora up until about 1952, and their travels throughout the world. I read through it a number of times to get a feeling for the shape of the piece, and to get the pitches in my mind. Then I went back and did extensive research into the history — everything from the Spanish Inquisition to Giordano Bruno, to Freud, Mussolini, and the Campo de’ Fiori [the Roman square where heretics, including Bruno, were executed], and eventually to Israel — so that I could match the emotion in my voice to the history that was being referenced.
Ashley’s operas are so dissimilar to conventional works in the genre. What did he actually put in front of you in the score?
HUMBERT There’s just a pitch assignment and words. You can twist those words sonically however you feel like interpreting them. But he had this passacaglia [a sequence of variations over a repeating figure, usually in triple meter] running through it, these pitches, and they run through the whole piece.
Was the interpretation largely left open to you?
HUMBERT There was a lot of back and forth: I would try something, and he either liked it or he didn’t. We went through many incarnations before we hit on it.
Gelsey, you’re a scholar. Did you undertake a similar kind of preparation?
GELSEY BELL Well, I’d read Bruno a while ago when I was working on my dissertation. I’d read [Frances Yates’s] “The Art of Memory.” And I’ve done some more recent reading on 1492 and what has happened since. But also, one of the things that made me fall in love with Bob’s work, many years ago, was this idea of the West Coast identity of the person who had gotten so far away from the Old World, and what that meant for a diaspora of people coming from Europe.
You’re coming to Linda with Jacqueline’s performances and recording out there. To what extent do you feel beholden to what’s been documented?
BELL I first got to know this piece through the recording, so there are many aspects of what you did, Jackie, that feel really essential to me.
But at the same time, there’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from yours in many ways, Jackie, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.
MIMI JOHNSON In this piece in particular, the recording is very important. Jackie, of course you cannot forget that in live performance, you doubled your own recorded voice.
HUMBERT That was a trick in itself, because the task there was to match every syllable to what was on the underlying tracks.
JOHNSON After you guys finished “Improvement,” all of the other operas Bob made in a completely different way.
When “Improvement” was staged originally, the singers were vocalizing over their recorded parts?
HUMBERT The voices were embedded in the orchestra, and they couldn’t figure out how to separate them at the time. Tom Hamilton [the music director] has recently been able to do it, so they’re able to perform it live.
BELL And Tom said he had a conversation with Bob at the time they were making the recording, and Bob was like, “We’re never going to do this live. This isn’t about a live version; this is about the recording, so don’t worry about this.” And then, you guys did it live. [Laughs]
What are the biggest challenges of “Improvement,” and what are the most satisfying things about it?
BELL What’s hardest? On a purely technical level, the way we have things set up now is that every word in the opera has a certain amount of beats, and there’s just that many beats that we’ll do, every show. It’s not like someone is pressing cues to follow you; you start those beats and the metronome’s going, and it will keep going until you get to the end.
This is the first time I’ve ever been part of a piece that has been that rigid that’s so long. And there’ll be large sections where if you’re off, you just will have no idea for a while. It’s a very different way of working than having a conductor who’s following you.
It’s so much fun performing Bob’s work. The language just never stops giving, both musically and philosophically. It’s some of the most enriching work that I’ve done, because every rehearsal you find something new, and something new speaks to you.
Divorce has been a very big subject in my life, and there’s just not that many operas that deal with that aspect of human interaction. Around the time that you guys were recording this, my parents were getting divorced. It speaks to me in a way that a lot of opera just doesn’t. There’s something really amazing and emotional about being able to inhabit this role.
HUMBERT I would say that the most challenging thing in doing “Improvement” was to make it sound effortless. There’s so many words, and it’s so hard, but he didn’t want there to be any sense of a struggle going on. It took a lot of practice to come to that place where it sounded effortless. But the most satisfying thing is when you finally get it, and you can do it, it feels wonderful.