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Tag: opera

Chelsea Guo Stars on Piano and Vocals on Her New All-Chopin Album

It’s impossible to keep track of how many pianists have sent their interpretations of Chopin here over the years. If only quality matched quantity. Serendipitously, Chelsea Guo’s new album Chopin: In My Voice – streaming at Spotify – is a relatively rare exception, a very smart, insightful collection of the 24 preludes along with the the Fantaisie in F minor and three selections from Chopin’s 17 Polish Songs. Those last three are on the program because Guo distinguishes herself not only as a pianist but as a soprano.

Guo’s use of rubato is masterful. She doesn’t overdo it, so when she loosens the rhythm, there’s always an impact, and her sense of where to weave this into her phrasing – this being Chopin, it’s usually on the somber side here – is laserlike. In general, it seems she prefers to understate a piece and let the music speak for itself rather than overemote. And she takes an architectural view to the development of these works, often following a subtly crescendoing arc.

The E Minor Prelude is particularly good: Guo plays it very straight-up first time through, then backs away for an increasingly unmoored sense of terror and despair. The D Minor Prelude is on the quiet side, but with plenty of feeling and a similarly impactful rhythmic freedom. Strikingly, she hits the C Minor Prelude hard at the beginning and then lets this immortal dirge quietly trail away: if there’s anything in Chopin that’s pure autobiography, this is it, or at least it seems so in Guo’s hands.

As fans of the Preludes know, many of them are miniatures, here and gone in barely the space of a couple dozen bars. Guo typically approaches the rest of them with restraint, although there are exceptions, notably in the lickety-split torrents of the F Sharp minor prelude and the long trajectory of the “Raindrop” prelude in D flat, where she seizes the moment to revisit the sheer desolation of its E minor counterpart. Clearly, she has a close emotional connection with this music.

Guo plays the Fantaisie in F minor as a suite: glittering triumph, a jaunty bit of a dance, introduced and intermingled with wariness. Interestingly, her take of the famous Barcarolle is especially vigorous and turbulent.

She closes the album with the Polish Songs: reaching for the rafters with dramatic power in Maja Pieszczotka; holding back a bit with her vocals before busting loose with Im mir klingt ein Lied and Di Piacer Me Balza Il Cor. Something happens to Guo’s playing when she sings: all of a sudden a coy playfulness appears. This may be a function of the material, but it’s quite a contrast with the poignancy and sheer seriousness of the preludes. It’s a fair bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg of Guo’s emerging talent.

DWB: The Most Relevant, Hauntingly Evocative New Chamber Opera in Years

It’s hard to imagine a song cycle more apropos to our era than composer Susan Kander and soprano Roberta Gumbel’s chamber opera DWB (Driving While Black), streaming at Spotify. Gumbel’s lyrics draw on her own experiences and worries as the parent of a black adolescent who’s approaching driving age. Interspersed amid this mom’s reveries are real-life “bulletins” ranging from incidents of mundane everyday racism – Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to enter his own home – to allusively macabre references to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile.

Kander’s dynamic, sometimes kinetic, often haunting series of themes bring to mind Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock movie scores, Gumbel nimbly negotiating their dramatic twists and turns. With tense close harmonies and chiming arrangements, Messiaen and maybe George Crumb seem to be influences. The duo New Morse Code come across as a much larger ensemble: credit percussionist Michael Compitello, who plays a vast variety of instruments, most notably vibraphone and bells, alongside cellist Hannah Collins. Together they shift, often in the span of a few seconds, from a creepy, deep-space twinkle to a stalking, monstrous pulse and all-too-frequent evocations of gunfire.

What hits you right off the bat is that this narrator mom is smart. She frets about putting her infant in a backwards-facing car seat, because he won’t be able to see her, and she won’t be able to offer him a smile to comfort him. We get to watch him grow up: to Gumbel’s immense credit, there’s a lot of humor in the more familial moments, welcome relief from the relentless sinister outside world. The driver’s ed scene is particularly hilarious. Yet this doesn’t turn out to be a trouble-free childhood: Gumbel casts the kid as the son in a single-parent household, reflecting the reality that an inordinate percentage of people of color are forced to cope with.

Most of the numbers are over in less than a couple of minutes, a kaleidoscope of alternately fond and grisly images. A soaring, drifting lullaby, a slinky soul-tinged groove and a plaintive cello solo break up the furtive, often frantic sequences. One of the most chilling interludes involves not a police shooting but a near-miss. In a case of mistaken identity with a rare happy ending, the cops end up dumping the ex-suspect out of the police van in an unfamiliar part of town. He has to walk all the way home from there. Wait til you find out how old he is.

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

An Iconic, Haunting Schubert Song Cycle Reinvented For Our Time

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin‘s new live recording of Schubert’s Winterreise – streaming at Spotify – is heartbreaking on more levels than usual. DiDonato isn’t phased by singing a male role: she’s done that before. Unquestionably, she brings new levels of depth and angst to Wilhelm Muller’s interminable, metaphorically loaded journey through a winter wasteland. Maybe listening to this from a male perspective actually doesn’t give her enough credit, considering how troubling it is simply to hear a woman channel so much emotional devastation. In her liner notes, DiDonato relates how she’s been intrigued by how little we know about the nameless love interest whose ex was sent off stumbling into the snow. In this interpretation, the breakup was just as hard on her.

Nézet-Séguin’s clear-eyed, meticulous focus is a welcome backdrop and guide for everyone involved. He lets what might well be the most famous classical song cycle ever written tell itself, carving out a path of subtly blinding lucidity. The elephant in the room here is that this is a concert recording, from Carnegie Hall in December 2019. Just over four months later, the venue was shuttered and remains cold and dead. That context is as heartbreaking as the story itself. How much longer are New Yorkers going to tolerate Cuomo and the lockdowners’ relentless campaign of terror?

With that in mind, the suite is an even more potent metaphor – it’s hardly a stretch to read Muller’s tale of lost love as a parable of freedom lost to forces of evil, followed by an escape attempt whose end remains in doubt. Take The Signpost, a muted, troubled, spare interlude about eighty percent of the way in: is this simply an embattled individualist’s lament, or a subtle revolutionary cry? This duo leave that possibility wide open.

DiDonato’s downward cascades in the sarcastically titled overture pack quite a wallop as Nézet-Séguin maintains a very light-footed stroll, eschewing any temptation to go for either grand guignol or florid operatics. It’s a portent for the rest of the record.

There’s an almost furtive scramble to the fourth segment, Numbness, the anguish of DiDonato’s narrator wanting to melt the ice with her tears and rekindle the affair. Happy memories under the linden tree seem more ghostly here, at a distance: sleep in heavenly peace, ouch!

Rivers rise with DiDonato’s voice as Nézet-Ségui serves as anchor, both musically and emotionally. Rest proves tantalizingly elusive, a spring thaw vastly more so, in a rare crushing crescendo. Increasingly somber intimations of mortality are much more vastly spacious and funereal. The scene where the traveler ends up sleeping in the graveyard because the inn is full seems only logical, and Nézet-Séguin really makes those cruelly conclusive chords sink in. And the hushed coda, out on the ice with the homeless, drunken hurdy-gurdy player, makes for sheer horror. These two really go to the core of this music. Newcomers to the Winterreise who discover it through this recording are especially lucky.

Stirring Drama and Persistent Unease in Huang Ruo’s First Symphonic Album

Huang Ruo’s music is instantly recognizable and completely unique. He likes brass and percussion, but utilizes both in surprising ways, especially in his most horizontal moments. The many traditions of his native China are an influence, but subtly. Close harmonies, dense orchestration and the stately grandeur of Chinese court music are persistent tropes throughout his diverse new album Into the Vast World – streaming at Spotify – the first collection of his symphonic works. Liang Zhang conducts the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with equal parts fire and precision in this live concert performance from the fall of 2019.

Ruo himself shows off a dramatic, highly ornamented falsetto in his long a-cappella introduction to the pulsing first number, Shattered Steps – in an imaginary, improvised language. In the beginning this is a fanfare, it’s a dance, it’s driving and dramatic, with lots of bracing close harmonies. A sudden stillness fueled by unsettled brass and low flutters ensues; Zhang meticulously leads the ensemble up a long slope toward starrier but also more suspenseful textures. After a hint of a spring ritual, Ruo returns for the shivery coda.

Becoming Another, a study in contrasts between stillness and activity, has a persistent, enveloping tension, horizontality looming behind a series of increasingly animated motives. Counterintuitively, it grows more lustrously atmospheric as a minimalist fanfare spirals up through the cloud: John Luther Adams’ recent environmentally-themed work is a good point of comparison.

Ruo returns to the same dichotomy in Stil/Motion, which is more minimal, with simpler, persistent rhythms, and covers a wider dynamic range.

Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sings two segments from Ruo’s opera An American Soldier, based on the short life of Private Danny Chen, who was murdered by fellow American troops during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The first part, So That’s the Man, has an acidic, accusatory, gusty intensity as his mother witnesses the courtmartial of the racists who killed him. Yang delivers the first moment of distinctly Chinese pentatonics over restlessly drifting, brass-tinged atmosphere in the second, Lullaby: Sleep Now, Little One

The Two Pieces For Orchestra begin with a Fanfare which has more of the same brass and fleeting upper-register motives puncturing a dense, nebulous atmosphere. The second part, Announcement opens with a distant paraphrase of a Chinese riverboat song, tossing and then floating while the percussion section maintains a relentless intensity. The massed string glissandos are an unexpected extra shot of adrenaline and offer no hint of the windswept cello-fueled interlude afterward. The orchestra calmly sing the outro before one of Ruo’s characteristic, dramatic gong crashes at the end.

The orchestra wind up the album with four shorter works also based on folk themes. With its precise, racewalking beat and stabbing flutes, Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang has a martial feel. Love Song from Kang Ding and Little Blue Flower are the album’s most hypnotically circling piece, yet each also rises to a pulsing drama, the latter with a plaintive violin solo. The ensemble make a triumphant anthem out of The Girl from Da Ban City, a catchy taxi driver’s song, to wind up the album.

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddeningly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.

A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

The Visionary, Sardonically Hilarious, Grimly Dystopic New Opera Looking at You Debuts in the West Village

Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25

Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.

The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decides to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.

In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies in perfect techno-speak about how benign it all is.

Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.

Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.

Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”

Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.

Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.