The Garden is an experimental, queer opera about the roots of systemic oppression that revolutionizes the form of opera, incorporating musical influences from heavy metal and techno and including puppets, aerials, etc. Developed by Open Flame Theatre, an all queer/trans/GNC ensemble, it will premiere as a site-specific performance in 2020 in the Minnesota Metro area.
Open Flame’s inquiry into rewilding and its relationship to systemic oppression began in 2010 when we created a circus-influenced tragicomedy that we toured down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft. Then-named The Unseen Ghost Brigade, we saw firsthand how the attempts of the Army Corps of Engineers to control the river was resulting in the death of the river’s ecosystem. This was how we began to see the relationship between oppression and control, liberation and the wild.
Having developed this inquiry over the years, we believe that Western civilization attempts to control nature in order to utilize it. The Garden investigates white-supremacist/colonizer culture’s desire to beautify/manage/control nature (including people) and reveals the suffering that ensues when it does. The heart of this performance asks: how do you uproot oppression? The journey one must take in search of an answer to such a question begins with looking at how systemic oppression manifests in us as individuals, and in our communities. We see this on an environmental level, a societal level, and a personal level. If we dam a river, it floods worse the next year. If we deny institutional racism, implicit racism runs rampant. If we refuse to acknowledge our inner demons, they surface and attack in a thousand ways.
The Garden subverts the form of opera. A once populist art form, opera has stagnated in halls of opulence. We are bringing opera back to the streets, and deepening its radical roots. The music will use classical instruments such as violins, harps, cellos, and a hurdy gurdy but will contain a darkness that comes directly from electronic and metal music traditions. The Garden will use puppets, music, mask work, aerial silks, and other circus arts to tell a story: not with words, but through a physical and musical score. Our ensemble of five will be the central performers, supported by a small orchestra of five to seven people. Our ensemble will devise and create the performance together, lead by the vision of our composer, director and fellow-performer Walken Schweigert. The Garden will be performed and staged in the round, with actors and orchestra between and above the audience.
The narrative will unfold in nine scenes, following the Querent, a queer mortal from this world who finds themselves in hell. In each scene, the Querent is confronted with a different part of themselves that they hid, were told was monstrous, were afraid of, ashamed of. In each scene, the queer Querent is able to integrate and therefore heal that part of themselves, despite their fear. Thus the performance is a reunification with our true selves, our parts that are other than, different from, or outside of the white-washed, mainstream.
The Garden is a world of decadence, with materials including satin, delicate woodwork, fancy silverware, and elegant facades. The audience will see the beauty of The Garden revealed in its true form as a masking of horror. An orange bitten into explodes with blood. A cupboard opened has skeletons inside. An innocent waltz turns into a deadly fight. A statue comes to life to unleash a deadly phobia.
In the U.S., the dominant culture asserts control overtly and covertly. Our ensemble believes that true liberation and autonomy is at the core of human well-being. The Hell of our times is carefully manicured, controlled, and managed to look ‘beautiful’ by a particular definition. Anything different, outside of that definition is punished, covered up, perceived as terrifying and monstrous. We come to fear those parts of ourselves. The Garden is a journey to understand, have compassion for, and uplift those parts of our truest selves and embrace them. For our queer ensemble, The Garden is a ritual performed with the intent of reclaiming ourselves.
One cannot escape from The Garden by running from or denying one’s fears. The only way to conquer our fears is to face them. The only way out of hell is through it.
The Garden is being composed by Walken Schweigert, primarily on the hurdy gurdy. The hurdy gurdy purchase and subsequent compositions for The Garden are made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation. This hurdy gurdy was made by George Leverett of Altarwind Hurdy Gurdies!