“Black Lodge,” a dark psychological opera premiering this weekend during Opera Philadelphia O22 festival, combines classical operatic tropes with the sounds of hard industrial rock and roll.
Listeners at times will hear something akin to both French baroque music and Nine Inch Nails, while watching the opera’s main character, for whom all the music is written, spin through cycles of torment generated by his own mind.
The music is performed by the L.A.-based goth glam band Timur and the Dime Museum, alongside a string quartet from the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra. The production is both a film and a performance, as the musicians on stage accompany the film with live music.
“Black Lodge” was written by David T. Little, known for his 2012 opera “Dog Days” and nominated for a Grammy last year for “Soldier Songs.”
This new opera is named after the mysterious, red-curtained room in David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks,” and loosely based on the life of William S. Burroughs, who accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951. Burroughs later suggested that the deep regret he felt from his unforgivable act became the wellspring of his future writing career, including the celebrated novel Naked Lunch.
The opera does not claim to tell the real story of Burroughs. The main character, played by the Kazakhstani singer Timur Bekbosunov, is called simply The Man. He is visited by visions of The Woman, a wordless dancer played by choreographer Jennifer Harrison Newman.
“The young William S. Burroughs right when the horrible accident happened, when he accidentally shot his wife, and the dynamic of their relationship, is explored in a phantasmagorical way,” said Bekbosunov, the frontman of Timur and the Dime Museum.
Composer David T. Little did not originally set out to tell the story of Burroughs when he started developing “Black Lodge” a decade ago with Beth Morrison Projects. He had no story to tell. He didn’t even have a musical idea.
All Little had was a feeling, one that he could not quite put his finger on, but it was leaning toward electric guitars and droning organs.
“I knew [it] had something to do with electricity, with buzzing, with humming,” Little said. “A sound that sounds like a single hum, but has a lot going on inside of it.”
He was reading Antonin Artaud’s, “The Theater and its Double,” a collection of seminal essays on modern theater from the 1930s that included a manifesto for his Theater of Cruelty. Little felt there must be a connection between Artaud and other 20th-century artists who explored dark places in the human spirit: Burroughs and Lynch.
“Did they work together? Did they know each other? Were they influenced by one another?” wondered Little. “Turns out, not in any direct way.”
Without a literal connection between the trio, Little sought out a “cosmic connection.” He went to poet Anne Waldman, 77, the author of more than 40 books of poetry and who was associated with poets of the Beat movement.
Waldman wrote a libretto for Little, filled with dark and troubling imagery.
“Maybe Anne is the perfect person to write this text because, one, she knew William Burroughs,” said Little. “And her work engages with this cosmic realm. It feels almost like a shamanistic practice in a really amazing way.”
Waldman’s libretto resonated with Little, but it still didn’t add up to a story.
He found a narrative structure in the bardo, the spiritual realm between life and rebirth where, in some Buddhist traditions, a soul goes through a series of transformative phases.
In the beginning of the opera, Bekbosunov is seen in a television monitor reciting lines:
In the electroshock bardo he encountered parasitic beings,
Was brought back to life so that these fiends could live off him.
“We were looking at a few different writings on the Bardo experience, where a soul who has just died is encountering their earthly attachments, and then moving through the paces of trying to come to terms with their life before returning, presumably, as a reincarnation,” said director Michael McQuilken.
“We set it in a Lynchian world, cinematically, in the sense that it’s mid-century and spooky and things don’t necessarily add up immediately,” he added. “Hopefully they do by the end. I mean, we definitely attempted to make everything line up by the end.”
The film takes viewers into the basement of an abandoned industrial building, a wind-swept desert, a hospital, a wood-paneled room with a bar. The locations are phases of the bardo where The Man spins through his own mental torture.
Bekbosunov calls it a psychological escape room.
“He’s stuck in that place trying to find his way. He’s writing his way out of it. The character says this all the time, this phrase: ‘Write my way out of here. I’ve got to write my way out of here,’” he said. “That’s one way you deal with depression. That’s how you deal with life.”
That story also describes the score. Little calls the piece “ritualistic,” composing cyclical music with looping melodies and repeated motifs. The music seems to keep revisiting itself as the singer obsesses over his past regrets.
David Lynch has a strong connection to Philadelphia, where he went to art school as a young man, started his family, and where the seeds of his dark and dreamy artistic vision were planted.
“Black Lodge” is not set in Philadelphia – the abandoned industrial basement is actually in Maine – but Little gives a nod to Philly in one of the songs.
“There’s a line, ‘No rotting fruit on Aspen Street,’ in one of the later songs in the piece. That’s a reference to when Lynch lived in Philadelphia on Aspen Street and he used to keep a bowl of rotting fruit, as a sort of artistic inspiration,” said Little. “He’d have this moldy, rotten fruit, and I thought that was just an amazing image.”
“Black Lodge” will be performed twice this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. Afterward Opera Philadelphia plans to release the film on its online streaming platform. Little said an album recording is being planned for release next year.
Saturdays just got more interesting.