Is Tissues the best opera of all time? Our immediate reaction is to say no, of course not. There have been hundreds of operas written over the past 705 years. But what if it’s the only opera we’ve ever liked?
We were already fans of Pan Daijing, the multi-faceted composer and performer who has twice landed on our year-end charts with experimental electronic extravaganzas. We were primed to follow her wherever she chose to go, but never expected to encounter an opera embedded in an experimental framework, much less to be amazed by its power.
The album begins with electronic textures, and along the way delves into drone, bright-toned synthesizer, and industrial soundscapes. The integration of vocal elements: a counter-tenor, tenor and mezzo-soprano, performing alongside Pan Daijing, enhances the level of drama, especially as the gorgeous clear-cut tones give way to yelps, cries and assorted onomatopoeia, expressing the anguish and determination we’ve come to expect from the artist’s productions. In one sense, the album is tugging the listener toward heaven, while in another, the album is ensnared in the turmoils of the earth.
In its first incarnation as Tissues I: A Prologue, the opera inhabited a large glass space; attendees arrived to find the work already in progress, dancers already engaged in movement. By the end of the fifth act, the script was flipped as the dancers looked out toward the attendees; the city behind the glass became part of the performance. In Tissues from Tate, the room is spacious, the mood anticipatory, yielding the sense that anything can happen at any time. The album proceeds from this performance.
Are you hurting? the performers seem to sing as the electronics steam and gurgle. We are. Have you been wrung out by the world. We have. Do you know the way out? We don’t either. The effect is that of being caught in a large machine as the gears shift and the doors close, destruction assured. And yet the singers continue to sing. The dancers continue to dance. Pan chirps and trills pain and protest, but is not silenced, despite all indications that silence will soon be imposed.
The album is a visceral product, as with all of Pan Daijing’s productions evidence of a soul laid bare. Unlike her other works, Tissues is wide open to interpretation, especially when one lacks translations of the modern and classic Chinese libretto. The music sounds intensely personal, but may be received as political as well. The balance between organic and electronic elements speaks to the disconnection of the modern age, while the angst is palpable no matter the angle. Toward the end, the delivery grows more direct, as if conclusions have been reached: the world is as it is, we will go on or we will not, but we will whistle into the dark regardless.
So is this the best opera of all time? Ask an opera critic, and they will certainly say no. But we’re not opera critics. I’ve listened to opera, and I’ve been to the opera, and everything I’ve heard and seen has left me cold, except this. The album makes me reevaluate my relationship with an entire genre. So from this vantage point, the answer is an unqualified yes. (Richard Allen)