A Rock Opera for Emma Goldman

Santafe.com - April 23, 2012

" 'She is such a bad-ass that I thought rock'n'roll would be the perfect and beautiful medium for her words' "

So on the one hand, you have the radical anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman (1869-1940). On the other hand, you have the concept of a rock opera: singing, dancing and a live band. But put them together?

Well, it’s nothing less than New Mexicans have come to expect from the zany, creative Wise Fool New Mexico. And now, teamed with Santa Fe Performing Arts, the two are producing “Love & Emma Goldman: A Rock Opera,” for a four-day weekend at the Armory for the Arts, May 17-20. (Ticket prices are on a sliding scale, anarchist style, from $15-$30.)

Armed with a $50,000 grant from the California Foundation for Peace and Justice and a $7,000 Music Matters grant for the production’s CD, librettist Sarah-Jane Moody and her partner in love and music, Jeremy Bleich, had the time and support to turn Goldman’s books, letters, speeches and essays into a rock opera. 

“Every single word on stage – except two lines of `America the Beautiful’ – are Emma Goldman’s words,” says Moody, perhaps best known in Santa Fe for her clown extraordinaire performances. “It’s been three years in the making. It was years of research but it was joyful research.”

Once called the “most dangerous woman in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, Goldman was considered a “red menace,” not just for her politics, but for her assassination attempt, with Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, on Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Co. But for her fans, like Moody, Goldman has come to be admired for her fight for free speech and the rights of women to be in control of their own bodies.

At 15, a young Moody used to escape her family’s Venice Beach home and haunt the shelves of the legendary Bodhi Tree bookstore in West Hollywood. It was there that she discovered the autobiography of the Lithuanian-born Goldman.

Moody, even then a lover of music and rhythms (her dad was a scientist working for Howard Hughes who taught his children the mathematics of music), was not only attracted to Goldman’s politics, but to the lyrical nature of her speech.

“Her words are so prophetic and rhythmical and poetic,” says Moody of the revolutionary Goldman, who took the soapbox wherever she could, from ladies clubs and Elks halls to union halls and literary societies. “Just reading them sounds like music.”

The passion Moody found in Goodman’s words led her to embrace her own interests of theater and music as activism, including working with Clowns Without Borders and performing at refugee camps in Latin America

And somehow all that passion and wildness and activism found its way to a rock opera production in Santa Fe. “She is such a bad-ass,” says Moody of Goldman, “that I thought rock ‘n’ roll would be the perfect and beautiful medium for her words.”

The cast is an ensemble of five actors, singers and dancers, meaning, “Everyone has to be able to do everything,” explains Moody. It includes locals Sarah Weiler, who sings with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, as Millie, and Giacomo Zafarano, who performs with Santa Fe’s Moving People Dance, as Fedya. Meagan Chandler, originally from Boulder, Colo., had previously performed and collaborated with Bleich, and plays Emma Goldman. Kathryn Zdin was Moody’s roommate when both attended the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif., and came from San Francisco to play Helen. Aleph Ayin was a “friend of a friend” of Moody’s and came from Chicago to play Alexander “Sasha” Berkman.

Moody didn’t have to look too far for her musical collaborator. She and her life partner, Bleich, have what they call a “trashy pop duo” together called GoGoSnapRadio, and they’re used to speaking musical shorthand with each other.

“I would say, `Jeremy, here’s this song I need, 4 ½ minutes, these qualities, this meaning,’ and he would write something and then we’d go back and forth with it.” The two met when Bleich began composing music for Circus Luminous, the popular “new circus” extravanganza that Wise Fool produces every November.

Bleich, who grew up in Ohio and earned a degree in music composition from Cleveland State, brought his own strengths to the production. “My parents are pretty progressive people and I remember them talking about Emma Goldman when we watched the movie `Reds,’” he says of the 1981 film about communist journalist John Reed who chronicled the Russian Revolution.

“The thing that really knocks me out about Emma Goldman,” says Bleich, “is that I can’t think of anyone that is her equal in terms of her fearlessness and her honesty and her absolute necessity to stick to her ideals. Everyone else is willing to compromise and she didn’t, and it may have been detrimental to her movement. It was both incredibly naïve and incredibly brave.”

Bleich says he simply wants the audience to leave the theater humming the songs. “When people say, ‘I can’t stop thinking about this song,’ that’s what’s really important to me…. I try to make music that will have an effect on the community around me,” says Bleich, who also currently works for the Santa Fe Opera developing operettas for children.

“I’m not interesting in writing things that are difficult to understand,” he says. Within that, however, Bleich took an adventurous approach. “There’s a lot of Eastern European influence, a certain industrial influence, with typewriters, sewing machines, plates and cups clanging on the table. There’s also a modern, obviously rock influence, kind of the rock ‘n’ roll attitude of anarchy. It’s perfect for her story.”

The band will include: Bleich, on piano, keyboard and guitar; Mike Gamble, from New York City, as lead guitar; Paul “Feathericci” Groetzinger, with Santa Fe band D Numbers, on drums and electronics; Brian Mayhall, with D Numbers, on keyboard and bass; and Carla Kountoupes, with the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra, on violin.

Bleich says purists would say a rock opera is not an opera. “But I don’t believe that,” he says. “I think it could be an opera even with spoon accompaniment. I would just call it a modern opera or contemporary opera, but I put in rock because people might be misled. I have my idea, not too many share it, in terms of the process and all the techniques that make an opera – they’re here. The difference is in instrumentation and the size of the budget.”

The performance uses many techniques from opera, Bleich says, “Pretty rich orchestration and pretty dramatic and high themes.”

Musing about operas through history, Bleich says that even Mozart struggled. “He didn’t want to write operas about Greek gods … he wanted to write about people.” 

And this opera deals with a woman with radical ideas for her time about sexuality. “There’s nothing overtly R-rated,” says Bleich. “There’s a mild strip-tease,
some dirty words in Yiddish, and some material that’s suggestive of sexuality.”

In fact, the rock opera’s name, “Love & Emma Goldman,” was inspired by that aspect of Goldman’s life. “Emma’s true passion, influence and sticking power, if you will,” says Moody, “is due to the fact that all she did, she did through a righteous filter of love. She was in love with life, in love with beauty, in love with her lovers and in love with the cause that fueled her.”

At a recent rehearsal, during a break from playing the star role, Chandler talked about playing Emma Goldman. “I had never heard of her before, but wow, was I inspired,” says Chandler, a flamenco dancer and singer. “The combination … this very powerful person and her charisma and her intelligence and passion and deep compassion and sensuality.”

Standing on a chair, Chandler sings a song that embraces Bleich’s goals for the music, a lingering melody with words that haunt: “How long would authority exist if not for the willingness of the masses to become soldiers, policeman, jailers and hangmen?”

To reserve tickets, send an email to: emmagoldmanrocks@yahoo.com.

Performances are: 7 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 17, 18 and 19; 2 p.m.,

Saturday, May 19; and 4 p.m., Sunday, May 20.

Location: the Armory for the Arts