Love & Emma Goldman: A Rock Opera is about the enduring human voice. The original production by Sarah-Jane Moody and Jeremy Bleich (aka the experimental pop duo GoGoSnapRadio) is also about taking action for one’s beliefs. It’s about violence, justice, freedom and love. It’s about Emma Goldman, the turn-of-the-century anarchist who spoke up, was deported and disappeared into history.
Moody, who wrote the libretto, says that Goldman has been an inspiration to her since she was 16 years old, ditching school to hang out in a West Hollywood bookstore. She wove a story “ribbon” on which she hung a number of vignettes, featuring key Goldman arguments and events from about 1887-1919. Her aim is to reintroduce Goldman to the world.
“The thing about Emma Goldman is a lot of people don’t know who she is,” Moody says. “This woman was, in her day…really famous.”
As a longtime student of music and physical theater, Moody says rock opera is the “most digestible way” to show Goldman off. At a recent rehearsal, the necessity of the cast’s lengthy physical warm-up becomes apparent as soon the performance begins. The choreography is full of movement and gesture. The singers pose; they jump on tables; they weave in complex variations of hands and bodies—all while projecting their voices (i.e., singing). We feel the energy of Goldman’s “trying and wonderful times.” And we begin to understand why the US government deported her back to her homeland of Russia—out of sight, out of mind.
“She was very controversial—passionately loved and passionately hated,” Moody says. “People felt differently about her, and sometimes those people get erased easier.”
If Goldman were a public figure today, she might be labeled wishy-washy, but Moody sees her indecision on violence, for instance, as a character strength. Goldman prized human life and liberty, but she was not fanatical about her aims, nor did she cater to fanatics for votes, so she constantly battled with herself over the idea that violence for her cause might actually hurt that cause.
One vignette depicts the failed assignation attempt, by her lover Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, of Henry Clay Frick, a steel baron who employed the infamously brutal Pinkerton Detective Agency to break up a strike.
Goldman provided Berkman with the gun to do “the deed,” as they called it, but then later questioned their decision to employ violence. Sure, Frick didn’t mind hurting people, but Goldman’s sense of anarchy opposed that mentality.
“Anarchy is a pretty loaded word today,” Moody says. “People think of…destroying property. But at the turn of century, the philosophy really involved educated discussion, a lot of critical thinking. It was a philosophy that was debated openly.”
When she set out to build a performance around Goldman, Moody applied for a $50,000 California Foundation for Peace and Justice grant, which she won, before she even told Bleich that she heard his music in Goldman’s words. (The production also won a $7,000 Music Matters grant for the show’s companion CD.)
The final score brings a Tom Waits circus-meets-opera sound to the libretto, which consists of language from Goldman’s writings, minus a sexually frustrated adaptation of America the Beautiful.
And the libretto tells us everything we need to know about the production: “I merely tell you, the more of the human voice you suppress, the greater, louder, and profounder will be the human voice.”
Love & Emma Goldman: 7 pm Thursday and Friday, May 17 and 18; 2 pm and 7 pm Saturday, May 19; 4 pm Sunday, May 20. $15. The Armory for the Arts,1050 Old Pecos Trail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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