Chris Larson has never been kind to architecture. In fact, the St. Paul artist’s whole M.O. is to brutalize buildings.
He has blasted them with shotguns. He has dropped cars and aircraft through their roofs. He has drenched them in water and left them out in the winter to freeze. Remember when the Northern Spark festival ventured to St. Paul, in 2013? Larson’s the guy who built a life-size replica of a Marcel Breuer-designed house — only to blast it with pyrotechnics at 1 a.m. Sculpturally speaking, the guy is a sadist, treating physical environments like bugs he’ll tear the legs off.
So now that Larson’s doing opera, you think he’s going to change?
This weekend at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Larson, with coproducing help and a commission from Walker Art Center, opens “Wise Blood,” a 90-minute opera based on Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel. The project comes with a pedigree-logged list of collaborators. Larson’s roommate at Yale, Brooklyn composer Anthony Gatto, wrote the music and libretto; beloved Open Eye Theater founder Michael Sommers is directing, and the musicians include Juilliard-trained tenor Martin Bakari and Holly Hansen, singer of Twin Cities grunge-pop band Zoo Animal.
But of course, Larson’s greatest collaborator — and aesthetic soul sister — is O’Connor herself.
She is the great, gleefully grotesque Southern Gothic writer, Catholic and very dark. Larson is our Northern prairieland poet, Lutheran and quietly warped.
O’Connor is famed for a wry, rustic meanness, writing about crooks, frauds, serial killers, shyster preachers — “good country people” who are anything but. Larson is famed for destroying, often literally, the icons of bucolic farmland nostalgia.
Both are compelling for their hidden deviousness. Both tend to rip apart assumptions of agrarian innocence. Both spill guts, of the human and architectural varieties, onto the floor. O’Connor and Larson: It is a match made — well, not in heaven, but in some surreal backwoods hell.
Broken people, broken God
“Look at this … ”
Chris Larson tucks his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels, leaning against a prop bed suspended almost vertically on a wall. Only it’s not a wall. It’s the floor. We’re standing in a life-size country bedroom, tipped wildly on its side. It’s like a dollhouse kicked into the corner — decapitated, roofless, its open ceiling facing out into the audience, an aerial perspective where a window should be.
Larson mimes like he’s snoozing, then nods to a nearby projection screen. There, a live video stream of the room rights the topsy-turviness. Suddenly, he is asleep in the bed. I’m somehow standing nearby on the wall.
“See?” Larson said. “In the frame of the camera, the world makes sense.”
The entire set of “Wise Blood” is like this: all illusion and impossible spaces, steeped in rustic spookiness. M.C. Escher meets “True Detective,” Season 1.
There’s an apartment, bathed in misty white paint, that appears to recede toward infinity, its one room tapering to a vanishing point on the horizon. (Larson tells me the character living inside will grow and shrink as he moves through the space.) There’s a church tacked vertically to the wall, its pews like a horizontal row of artist Donald Judd’s famous boxes. There’s a skeletal white house with its top ripped upward, like a marshmallow being pulled apart.
The set satisfies as a stand-alone installation. (Indeed, the Soap Factory has opened “Wise Blood” as a concurrent art show.) Strewn forlornly throughout the building’s raw industrial space, the sculptures feel like torture victims, prisoners left chained in a dungeon. Larson’s plan is to “activate” these broken spaces with equally broken actors. The opera’s cast includes a combat veteran with PTSD, a prostitute, a manic zookeeper, a mummified dwarf and a man in a gorilla suit.
“Most of the spaces are smashed and damaged,” he said. “Unhinged. And most of the characters in ‘Wise Blood’ are the same — damaged souls in search of something.”
He said he reads O’Connor’s novel — about an atheist World War II vet who returns home to Tennessee to spread a gospel of anti-religion — not as a tale of screwed-up souls running from God’s big-tent salvation. As Larson sees it, God is the one who’s screwed up — and he’s the one that is doing the chasing.
“I read and understand it as a broken God seeking out a broken people,” he says, channeling the religiously cryptic O’Connor. “God is constantly pursuing the protagonist, and the protagonist can’t stand it.”
‘Where you are is no good’
Gatto doesn’t go in much for the Jesus stuff. At least not in his reading of O’Connor, whom he thinks is viewed shortsightedly as only a “Catholic writer.”
“There’s this great line in the novel,” the composer said. “ ‘The misery he had was a longing for home. It had nothing to do with Jesus.’ ”
Whereas Larson is quiet and cryptic, Gatto, his old Yale buddy, is all cerebral energy, East Coast-ing his way, articulately and energetically, through a storm of ideas.
“To me the story is about finding a place in this mess called the modern world. It’s an American story. You get kicked out. You leave. ‘Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.’ ”
If Gatto seems to have O’Connor’s prose memorized, it’s because he pretty much does. The libretto that accompanies his score — performed by a roving 13-piece brass band that will trail the audience through the galleries — is composed entirely of text lifted verbatim from the 1952 novel.
“Wise Blood,” for Gatto, is all about displacement, a horrific unmooring, getting marooned and spiritually ransacked in the wasteland. As such, the musical mood he creates is forlorn and eerie, but also steeped in Americana. He calls it “an American sound, the sound of the gospel” — preachers with microphones, the brass band, a heavy dose of “second-lining,” the New Orleans jazz tradition of trailing a parade with troupes of handkerchief- and parasol-twirling dancers.
Like Larson’s puzzle-box set, Gatto promises surprise and illusion.
“The thrust of the opera is definitely things being not what they seem,” he said. “Underneath it all is something dark and seedy.”
And O’Connor would have it no other way. “There are all kinds of truth,” she once said. “But behind them all is only one truth: and that is that there’s no truth.”
Gregory J. Scott is a Minneapolis arts writer.