The Prototype Festival, which showcases what it calls contemporary opera-theater and music-theater, opened its sixth season last night with an opera called “Acquanetta,” inspired by a cult horror film of the 1940s, “Captive Wild Woman,” and by its alluring and mysterious star, who went by the stage name Acquanetta.
The most charitable thing I can say about the opera, which is running through January 14 at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, is that Mikaela Bennett’s performance as Acquanetta provided some occasional sparks, and Deborah Artman’s lyrics were at times intriguing, but “Acquanetta” was simply not for me. The least charitable thing I can say is that “Acquanetta” managed to drain the campy fun out of a story featuring a mad scientist turning an ape into a beautiful woman, and was alienating in the exact way that both opera and the avant-garde can be at their worst — self-serious, overbearing and tedious.
The 70-minute piece begins with an extreme close-up of an eyeball, projected onto a screen in black and white, accompanied by an aria by the opera’s composer Michael Gordon, that is the musical equivalent of a horror movie scream:
“Conceal me, disguise me, obscure me, exchange me,” Acquanetta sings. “Obliterate me, reword me, imagine me….”
Slowly – v e r y slowly – the camera zooms out from the eye to Acquanetta’s face, which is being attended to by a Hollywood make-up artist.
“Metamorphose me, cancel me, abandon me.
Revise me, elide me, alter me — Mildred me.”
This is a reference to the actual woman behind Acquanetta the movie actress, Mildred Davenport, whom Universal Studios dubbed The Venezuelan Volcano, although she was not Venezuelan. Her exact origins are unclear; she was reportedly born in either Pennsylvania or Wyoming. There is speculation that she was African-American, a fact obscured so that she could have a career in Hollywood – one that in any case didn’t last very long.
Here she is in a clip from the 1946 movie “Tarzan and the Leopard woman,” as Lea the High Priestess, opposite Johnny Weissmuller.
By the time she died in 2004, at the age of 83, she had become a local celebrity in Phoenix, Arizona, known as “an exotic ex-movie queen, a philanthropist, and the slightly scary star of dozens of TV commercials for her husband’s car lot,” according to a bizarre semi-obituary in Phoenix New Times that is mostly an interview with a long-time Acquanetta fan.
Almost none of this is in the opera – which counts at the very least as a missed opportunity. “Acquanetta” focuses just on the making of the one B-movie, and the characters in it — the horror movie director, the mad doctor character, the brainy woman character, and the ape, each of whom gets a a black-and-white close-up and an aria. Most of them (including the ape) sing of the gap between the performers’ actual identities and their Hollywood-created personas. At one point all the principal performers together sing the refrain:
In the celluloid world,
once you are cast, or miscast,
you are that forever.
There is some humor in these lyrics, but it’s drowned out by the portentous, thundering tone of the music, and by a climax of sorts that approaches a near record-breaking level of tone-deafness: The characters are killed, and the camera lingers lovingly on their bloodied corpses one by one.
In the last ten minutes or so of the opera, a curtain at the side of the stage opens to reveal a red-tinted movie studio set, where what we’ve been seeing on screen in black and white was being recorded in real time. We see cameramen spinning Bennett around and around in a cart, as her face appears on the screen, singing “I am your beautiful monster…” again and again, to the most haunting and melodious music in the score.
The more she spins and sings, the more it elicits something close to the feelings of horror and pity and beauty that the opera’s creators might have intended for the rest of “Acquanetta” as well, but didn’t achieve.