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A production of Philip Glass' Les Enfants Terribles makes a case for opera's relevance

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When the composer Philip Glass walked down the steps outside of New York's Lincoln Center to talk with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators last month, he created one of his best performances.

After the Metropolitan Opera's final performance of his Satyagraha, which tells the story of Mohandas Gandhi's formative years, Glass defied a fairly ambivalent police barricade to lead the 99% crowd in a repeat-after-me reading of a Bhagavad Gita excerpt used in the opera's score. Glass distributed copies of the piece, essentially restaging, as street theater, what the Met had just performed inside their lavish hall. Reportedly gathered to point out the moneyed elitism of the institution and its patrons, not the composer himself, the demonstrators not only participated but took the words "When righteousness withers away, and evil rules, we come into being" to heart. The timbre of the gathering changed and members of the crowd, eventually including Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, took turns speaking extemporaneously. In effect, Glass showed that ears are open, successfully making the case for opera's relevance for which artistic directors seem to be constantly searching.

As the North Carolina Opera opens a short run of Glass' Les Enfants Terribles, or Children of the Game, they might be looking for ways to project the story's relevance beyond the walls of Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater. This is an equally gripping story of interpersonal, not economic, manipulation; the situation that Les Enfants' characters put themselves in is, in some ways, like Zuccotti Park, but in the room of a chateau rather than a tent.

Glass created Les Enfants with Susan Marshall in 1996, basing it upon Jean Cocteau's original 1929 novel, as well as Jean-Pierre Melville's 1950 film version. Anticipating his 75th birthday at the end of this month, the N.C. Opera presents it Jan. 19, 20 and 22, in collaboration with the Carolina Ballet. The ambitious co-production has taken several challenging steps to take Les Enfants Terribles beyond the stereotypical opera offering.

A claustrophobic drama, Les Enfants tells the story of the twisted mind game that young Lise and her bedridden brother Paul concoct, snaring several friends along the way. The objective of "the game" is to psychologically torture each other until one of them finally cracks. The sick pleasure each derives from inflicting pain becomes frantic, heightened both by the fact that the characters somehow can't leave Paul's room and by a brutal winter's cold. Even if you read Cocteau's book on a beach trip, his descriptions of the winter could give you goose flesh.

Here, a dancer is matched to each of the four singing leads, so every character is represented by two bodies. The shadow dancer is mute but kinetic, turning the cast into an odd community. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Rodin plays the dual role of Dargelos and Agathe. She found having a dancer double strange at first, but she kept thinking about its implications.

"So much of this opera is about the mystery and intrigue that's created in the siblings' room, in their space. And having a dancer shadow you really adds another level to that intrigue and another depth to the character," she says. "Another challenge has been translating between singer-musician language and dancing language. Dancers always speak in terms of 'After the fourth count of four there are three counts of three, and then you enter.' Whereas we singers would simply say, 'When this melody comes back, you enter.'"

Given the spare accompaniment of the looping, iterative Glass music played on only three pianos, it's especially hard for the singers to keep track of where they are in the score, much less where their corresponding dancer is. As such, musical director Wilson Southerland conducts from the piano, so eyebrows and nods take the place of baton.

Rodin has the added responsibility of throwing the fateful snowball that incites the plot. As the boy Dargelos, she mischievously hides a rock in a snowball during a neighborhood fracas. The snowball injures Paul, who loves Dargelos, badly enough that he can't leave his bed. The world shrinks down to Paul's room for all the characters.

Notes scenic designer Jeff A. R. Jones, "We spent some time trying to figure out how to have a snowball fight onstage without any of it landing in the orchestra pit, or the audience, or in the lighting, as well as how to make sure that it looked good and was theatrically interesting."

Jones brought in the same snow machines that sprinkled their magic on the Ballet's Nutcracker over the holidays, while video creates a gray, cloudy sky on the set's backdrop. But realistic snowballs? That's trickier than you'd think.

"We needed something that wouldn't continue to roll, so that when you threw it people wouldn't be watching the slowly rolling snowball instead of watching the action onstage," says Jones, laughing. "Our snowballs are made of stuff called 'Fun Fur' that has been crocheted and knitted into balls by a fleet of volunteers, some of whom were bribed with cheese."

Video designer Roz Fulton enhanced the artificial feel with her solution for the problem of supertitles in Fletcher Theater. Rather than project words so high above the stage that the audience has to lose visual contact with the action in order to read them, Fulton locates the text directly on the backdrop by whichever character is singing, a little like cartoon bubbles. The net effect should be an emotional cyclotron; trapped characters tend toward manic introspection and lash out at the other captives.

This brings us back around to Glass' Satyagraha coda in Lincoln Center. Composer Stephen Jaffe saw the protest as a teachable moment about music's relevance for his Duke students.

"You know, my students are always asking for contemporary. Well, here's last night," Jaffe chuckles. "Philip Glass was to some extent representing what has been alleged as a very elite form, associated with the biggest capital-I institutions of music: opera. He was being represented as that, but his politics were obviously divided and the subject of his work was some of the very ideas that Occupy was promoting."

That is, if not for the example of Gandhi, among others, the Occupy movement takes a very different form, if it happens at all. Both Occupy and Glass' Satyagraha are about establishing one's footprint in public space before being milled under by power. Les Enfants, however, is a cautionary tale about establishing a private space to try to make external powers fade into irrelevance. It's a lesson about the perverse dangers of avoidance, through which people split their selves into a half with a voice and a half that stays silent. These social scars are as insidious as the trauma played out in Zuccotti Park and other tent-dotted scenes like it.

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