In space, no one can hear you go flat on the high C of the
climactic aria of Windburn’s timeless Salome Unchained . . .

Space Opera

by Michael Kandel

Songs of the Spaceways
Image: Robert K. J. Killheffer, based on work by mik38 / 123RF Stock Photo

For Terry Bisson, champion of science fiction

Act 1

The curtain opens to a workshop in Vuffon, a spaceport in the Dalminian Empire, sun Alpha Cygni, planet Creeth. Bobby “Rocket” DeVries and his fellow grease apes are hammering out the dents in the hull of an old cruiser. They sing as they work, “Let’s return this old bucket to the stars,” to the syncopation of their hammer blows, which are rendered by the trombones and tympani in humorous five-against-six time reminiscent of the shawm concerti of Friedrich Windburn.

There is in fact a musical as well as philosophical polemic with Windburn throughout this opera. The composer had studied with Windburn when the composer was a raw youth in Frankfurt am Main, before the old master went mad and joined the notorious ashram in Madripore, where Sebastian Karlinsky, incidentally, also ended his days. Biographer Hiram Buck’s account of this period in Harold Davidson’s life is interesting but quite unreliable. We must not forget that Buck has an ax to grind, since Davidson had “stolen,” he always believed, both Buck’s second wife and the much coveted position of executive conductor at the Greenwich Conservatory (for which Buck had never really been a contender).

Fred runs in with the news that Darg Bhar, Governor of the United Asteroids, is coming to Vuffon. The grease apes cheer, for this will mean work: Bhar has a great fleet of ships, and everyone knows that vessels that ply the old spaceways among the asteroid belts of Koe are constantly receiving dents from collisions with stray bits of rock, ice, and discarded electronic components. Petro, Bobby’s friend, jokes: Now Petro will have enough money to marry Miranda. Everyone laughs, knowing that Petro has already been rejected more than a dozen times by Miranda, the proud daughter of Corporal Biggs. Petro sings an air: “You are ugly and you are poor, she told him. Where do you get the nerve to ask me for my hand?” The grease apes decide to celebrate at Harry’s, the homey ale-and-pot establishment in Vuffon. Bobby, strangely silent, does not join his cohorts as they go off singing. He tells them he has a headache from the noise of the hammers.

When his cohorts leave and as the stage darkens, he sings the haunting, plaintive aria, “Oh Bea, what will become of you?” We learn that Bobby’s younger sister, Bea, is in danger of falling into the clutches of Darg Bhar. “She’s a young thing,” Bobby sings, “and has not even been implanted yet.” The evil and lascivious Bhar wants to get at Bea’s DNA and make her his slave forever. Bhar conceived a dark lust for Bobby’s kid sister ever since he beheld her at the annual Saint Camilla song competition, when she was all in tulle and lilies. Bea is lovely, slender, and has an exquisite voice. Bobby fears for her. In a bold dreaming-while-awake sequence, a device that Davidson first employed in The Butcher’s Paramour, and very much in the face of the New York critics, Bea appears to Bobby and sings, “I’ll manage on my own. Stop crowding me.” Darg Bhar appears too, and he is accompanied by Leila Ziff-Calder, who has been recently cast off by Bhar and thirsts for revenge. It is instructive to see how Davidson cuts the Gordian knot of narrative, as it were, presenting so much of the plot to us with such direct economy by means of this dreaming-while-awake device, for in the alternating duet that follows — Bobby and Bea, Bhar and Leila — we are given the basic structure of the conflict to come. “I’m only thirty,” Leila sings. “I’m not that old. I have pleasure yet to give and to take.” Bhar, ignoring her, sings, “I’m wicked, but I don’t care. Why should I? There’s no afterlife.” Bobby sings: “He’s no good, Sis, he’s no damn good. Trust me on this.” Bea sings: “Get out of my face, Bobby. It’s my life.” All four voices join, and the DNA leitmotif (foreshadowing the genetic-engineering horror in Act 5) is introduced in descending minor thirds and taken up by the strings and then the solitary oboe, in a lovely, contemplative note — almost as if Davidson, with the cold cynicism of a New England deconstructionist, is distancing us not only intellectually but also emotionally from the Sturm und Drang of violent passions and runaway technology — as the curtain falls.

Act 2

The second act begins, curiously, with the overture, which is the composer’s way of thumbing his nose at the New York critical establishment, Carmine Hess in particular, that curmudgeonly pillar of tradition who probably also had his eye — but, then, didn’t everyone? — on the executive conductorship of the Greenwich Conservatory. In his climb up the musical ladder, Davidson made countless enemies.

After the famous signature prelude, A-flat, A-flat, G, and the subdominant E-major chord held for ten full measures, a presto-adagio alternation combines the warm ale-and-pot ambiance of Harry’s with the discordant, nervous broken arpeggios we will soon associate with Leila’s desperate scheme. Davidson loves to weave contrasting moods, and this is an excellent example, minor sevenths vying with perfect fifths, the harp petulantly competing with the contrabassoon.

When the curtain rises, we find ourselves in a bint city. A chorus of bints sings of their forthcoming invasion of the Dalminian Empire, sun Alpha Cygni, planet Creeth. At last they will drive out the human dogs and reconsecrate the ancient subterranean temples. The bint captain, Prowlux, tells Tywliq, his confidant and second, that the invasion will be successful this time because they have found a human traitor to turn off the protective force field at the precise moment the bint ships materialize from hyperspace. Tywliq says, “Those humans have no morality. They betray their kind at the drop of a hat. They will sell even their maternal grandmothers for filthy lucre. They are scum.” Prowlux tells him that money was not the bait this time. No, there is something that motivates humans even more than money. It is love. Prowlux and Tywliq sing a duet, “What is love? A foolish human thing.” Davidson, thumbing his nose yet again at the hide-bound musicologists of Julliard and Lincoln Center, playfully incorporates chortling into the song, to produce a uniquely comic yodeling effect. “The human heart takes over, chortle-chortle, the human brain takes flight.” General Wricob enters with his entourage and gives Prowlux special orders not to let the humans destroy the DNA lab when their battered remnants retreat into the indigenous scrub. Part of the invasion plan, we learn, is to change the human genome itself. The bints, taking over the DNA lab, will make humans weak and submissive for all eternity by manipulating the 34M-44F-XA alleles of the second chromosome to the left. “Guanine, adenine, cytosine,” sings the general’s entourage, to raucous saxophones and sinister cymbals.

As the warrior bints leave, Buyda, daughter of the Master Armorer, Greff (who has been unnoticed until now), steps from behind a boulder, lowers her lace veil, and laments that Prowlux has been driven so mad by power and ambition that he desires to couple not with her but with a human female, one Bea DeVries, in fact, whom he saw televised last quarter at the annual Saint Camilla song competition, when that shameless person of extrabintian origin was all in tulle and lilies. “What do human women have,” sings Buyda, “that we honest bint women don’t?” Buyda reveals her plan: She will don a suit of armor, disguise herself as a commando, and join the invasion force. At the appropriate moment she will plunge her serrated ceremonial bronze dagger deep into the pure white bosom of this despised DeVries alien, and then Buyda will take her own life. “For how can I continue,” she sings in her wretchedness, “without my Prowlux?”

Act 3

We are in the DNA laboratory near the spaceport Vuffon. White-bearded Doctor Cabrini is stirring one of the mitochondrial vats. “We will build a better race,” he sings, “a race that aspires to nobler things.” It is perhaps the most beautiful, loftiest aria Davidson ever wrote, and in both conception and sentiment it owes much to the final scene in Friedrich Windburn’s Salome Unchained, where Terrence rebukes the witch Faffah. The good doctor lists all the evils of the human race: their frivolity, their cruelty, their addiction to watching various screens. Now that we have conquered the stars, he argues, it is time for us to conquer ourselves.

Chuck, his son, enters to the blatant, mindless rhythm of disco, and says, “Dad, why are you spending all your time among these old test tubes and autoclaves? Come out and have a little fun for a change, why don’t you.” Chuck’s idea of fun is going to a virtual reality arcade and plugging into some nth-generation pinball machine. Doctor Cabrini shakes his sage head and replies that people should devote their time and energy to the welfare of the species rather than to empty personal hedonistic pursuits. In the following duet, Doctor Cabrini reveals that he has made a great discovery: He has isolated the gene for aggression. When it is excised, universal peace will ensue. Chuck’s rejoinder is, “Great, Dad. Then what do we do when we’re invaded?” In this seemingly comical exchange, Davidson is expressing a profound existential dilemma: We must always remain beasts, to some extent, he is saying, in order to protect ourselves against beasts, for otherwise we will be conquered and killed by them and our kind will not survive. And yet, the philosopher asks, what really has survived, if we remain beasts?

Lucas Fandera wrote, in the Charleston Herald, “Such is the genius of Harold Davidson’s ‘Aggression Gene’ duet that we cannot separate the score from the libretto, the idea from the ludic weave and interplay of sound and words. The duet hits us in all its irreducibility, like a beautiful woman, like a boxing glove, like an unheralded shaft of enlightenment from a higher sphere.”

Chuck departs to indulge in his sterile and puerile diversions, while the old man, with a sigh, resumes his work — but a hooded woman, we now notice, has entered unannounced. Standing in shadow, she asks for a vial of cis-methylated ligands. Doctor Cabrini recoils. “That is mortal poison,” he says. “Indeed,” retorts the woman. “But you will give it to me, old fool, because I know how you raised the money to send your ailing wife to the state hospital thirteen years ago on the planet Turrizo, though it didn’t help her goiter, did it, and I will tell everyone and his second cousin if you do not do my bidding. You will be ruined, ruined.” “What a despicable individual you are,” says Doctor Cabrini. “If you were not of the fair sex, I would say that you were Darg Bhar himself. This is his style.” “I am — I will be — the mate of Darg Bhar forever.” With that, she removes her hood, and we see that it is none other than Leila Ziff-Calder. Her grim resolution has made her pale. Her gray eyes flash with hatred. She sings, “I will stop at nothing to have him. Don’t anyone stand in my way.”

The old molecular biologist straightens his back. He defies Leila. “No, I’m sorry. I cannot do what is wrong.” She produces a laser pistol and without hesitation shoots him through the heart. “I warned you.” They sing a fierce duet about morality. “One must never compromise,” he sings, and she: “Circumstances alter cases.” He staggers and falls, clutching his chest, and sings, “Now I will not be able to save the human race from itself. How untimely does this cruel violence tear me from the world.” He sees, in a fevered dream, God Himself on His throne, laughing, for the Lord of Light is revealed, to the fading mind of Doctor Cabrini, as the Prince of Darkness. The violins and cellos build chromatically to a discordant tremolo crescendo sforzando with shades of Schönberg and a nod to Piston as the deity-devil sings, “Fate is a practical joke, nothing more, and all your nobleness is but fuel for my demiurgic mischief.”

Failing, dying, Doctor Cabrini sings as the violins play col legno, “I refuse with the last atom of my soul to believe in this black evil. We are made for more than ontological jokes. We must be. My heart, though alas it is punctured beyond repair, tells me so.”

At this juncture Davidson springs a most unexpected and unsettling device on the audience: he has an invisible chorus of chipmunk-helium voices sing, mockingly, “We are made for more than jokes, we are made for more than jokes.” With this the curtain falls, the chipmunk chorus still singing, accompanied appropriately by a tin whistle, wood blocks, and an irreverent glockenspiel.

At an early performance of the opera in a small, local opera house outside Berne, the infuriated audience came up on stage after this act, tore down the scenery, and injured some of the singers, one critically. “Blasphemy! Blasphemers!” they shouted. It was in all the papers of Europe, and a lengthy lawsuit followed.

Act 4

An orchestral interlude, with a gentle Wagnerian light show on mauve scrims, prepares a change of mood. When the curtain rises, we are back in the workshop of the Vuffon spaceport. The grease apes are hammering away cheerfully at a meteor-pocked hull, while Bobby, Petro, Fred, and a few others sweep the floor and polish the brass table lamps, for today the Governor of the United Asteroids comes to pay a visit. Bobby keeps his head low. We cannot guess at his thoughts or plans but we can see that he is troubled. Petro tries to engage him in conversation, but to no avail.

Voices sound offstage, then the tramp of marching. It is the Governor’s entourage. They are singing, “Make way for us, we are important.” The processional music wells, and after a line of guardsmen bearing banners fills the stage, Darg Bhar enters with a flourish, in all his worldly splendor. He is dressed in thick furs and several gaudy necklaces. At his side is Bobby’s sister, Bea. Bobby starts, riveted. He sees immediately that Bea is not herself. She seems drugged. Her eyes are dilated. She is wearing a most revealing black leather slit shift with funky decals. Has the nefarious Bhar already begun to work his lubricious villainy on her? Bobby clenches his fists. We can see that his hands itch for a weapon. “Ah me,” he sings sotto voce, “I am in such torment. If I follow my almost irresistible impulse of indignation, I will perish, nor will Bea profit. And yet I cannot stand by and do nothing. Ah, if only the wise Doctor Cabrini were here to advise me.” Bobby does not know that the molecular biologist is no more (and only now do we learn that Bobby knew him in the first place).

Bhar sings of his ambition to rule the system and someday even the galaxy. Though he is a villain, the song is compelling, for it speaks to the bully in all of us. His guardsmen join him on the refrain: “Power is a great tonic.” Though the theme is grim, there is a playful undercurrent here of Gilbert and Sullivan. Davidson was a man of mercurial shifts and deep contradictions.

Bobby manages to get his sister off to one side, and in a lovely, clever whisper duet — Davidson has each sing in a different key, which foregrounds their inability to communicate — Bobby sings, “I can’t let you do this to yourself,” and Bea sings, “I don’t need your permission, I can do what I like. I’m a woman now.” “Woman or DNA robot?” he counters. In answer, Bea goes into a curious, lame half-recitative that confirms Bobby’s worst fears, “Woman, robot, what does it matter, when you’ve given everything you have to a man?”

Hiram Buck argues that Davidson is alluding here to his third wife, Clarissa, who at that time was in therapy for an obsessive lust she had conceived for the family Schnauzer, which, nota bene, was a female. But even if such a thing is true, what does it signify? Sordid tabloid trivia do not explain great art. The composer’s personal life may indeed have resembled a soap opera shambles on occasion, but his music was always the real thing.

Bhar is about to sign a contract with the grease apes for them “to make his fleet as good as new,” when sirens begin wailing. A courier rushes in with the news that the bints have invaded. Pandemonium ensues. The orchestra plays a frenetic, jumbled medley of snatches from Windburn, Stravinsky, Sessions, and Ives as the curtain falls.

The curtain falls, but the fourth act is not over. We hear explosions, curses. The house lights do not come on. The smells of sulfur and ozone fill the auditorium. The singers and actors bring the bint invasion to the audience. Human soldiers and bint warriors grapple in the aisles. A man is beheaded right on the proscenium in a fountain of blood as the flutes and piccolos shriek in octaves. (In Köln some children were so badly frightened by this, that there were lawsuits. Davidson once quipped that his music seemed to have been performed more in courtrooms than in theaters. An exaggeration, but there is truth to the statement, for such rough commerce with the prosaic world speaks of the vitality, originality, and fundamental energy of Davidson’s oeuvre.)

Act 5

With an ominous, growling fanfare the scene opens at the marble palace at Ghewi, the Creeth capital. In the original production at the presidential palace in Belize, the set was based on ancient photographs of the marble government buildings in Washington, D.C., which must have complemented nicely the atmosphere of doom and lost empire. The triumphant bints are assembled in full panoply. Darg Bhar is in chains though he still wears his furs. The grease apes are in chains behind him. Miranda is in chains beside Petro, who is chained too though he was the traitor. General Wricob sits on a throne above the multitude, rubbing his hands and gloating. Prowlux sings to Bea, who is also in chains, though her chains are delicate and of gold, “Convert to bintism, human woman, and I will spare you.” She sings, “I belong to Bhar. You’re wasting your time.”

At this point, Davidson pulls yet another surprise from his theatrical sleeve, mixing tragedy and slapstick — and this at the very crux of the drama! — a bold masterstroke that undoubtedly left the contemporary critics gasping, sputtering, not knowing whether to admire or condemn. Not knowing, indeed, what to think. The action is condensed into a few seconds. A soldier steps forward, pulls off his helmet, and shakes out his hair. It is Buyda, and she holds a dagger. At the exact same moment, a hooded woman emerges from the crowd on the other side, holding a vial. It is, of course, Leila Ziff-Calder. Both women, in perfect symmetry, have chosen this time and place to do away with their competition. Remarkably, the composer accompanies with stubborn, total silence the carefully choreographed action that follows, as if we are watching mime. Perhaps Davidson is suggesting that we are all naught but programmed stick-figure puppets of our desires and fears. Again, this is one of Windburn’s themes, though put on its head: for Windburn claimed, until his ashram days, that we were not puppets (“Wir sind nicht Puppen!”) but, rather, exercised free will.

Buyda closes in and frenziedly bosom-stabs as Leila Ziff-Calder simultaneously pulls back Bea’s head by the hair and empties the contents of the vial into her throat. But lo! the serrated bronze ceremonial bint blade and the supertoxic cis-methylated ligands from Doctor Cabrini’s laboratory are powerless against Bobby’s sister: because of Darg Bhar’s nocturnal, unspeakable tampering with her hereditary material she is no longer human, perhaps no longer even living in the traditional sense. Bobby struggles against his chains to defend her but shrinks back with horror when he realizes that his sister is no more, though no more in a way different from the way in which he had first thought she was no more. It is a scene full of bitter and grisly irony, where both success and defeat have lost their meaning. Bea does not bleed from the wound, does not fall from the poison. Instead she sings, “I find this all very tedious.”

“This is your work, Bhar!” Bobby screams. Bhar turns to him and sings, in a cut-time inversion of the Leila Ziff-Calder revenge motif, what is surely one of the most chillingly cynical arias ever written: “I have slept with so many women, so many men, so many different creatures both terrestrial and not. I have slept with close family members, with infants, and with decaying corpses. I needed something new.”

Somehow we are not surprised that the ghost of Doctor Cabrini appears, hovering over the assemblage. He sings, to a stately Japanese drum, “This is what happens when we indulge the flesh, with no thought to our better destiny. This is the madness that happens.”

The chorus of combined bints and chained humans sings, in deceptively complex twelve-tone chords: “What will become of the human race if it does not give thought to its immortal soul?” The finale is all in C major and stolid quarter-notes, we hear organ music in the background, and the horns give full throat to their power, as if we were at a wedding of Norse gods in a cathedral so vast, its vault shimmers in mist. Though at the same time, almost as a kind of contrapuntal footnote, Bea and Chuck go off together, hand-in-hand, to faint disco music, no doubt to plug themselves into some screen in some arcade offstage. Their departure is barely noticed. In a sense, they were not there in the first place.

Thus does Harold Davidson conclude his magnum opus with a Sunday sermon instead of with wailing and mayhem, thereby breaking the most sacred of the rules of opera. “Only one murder, and only one ghost,” complained Alberta Quire of the San Diego Times. “How is it, then, that this work is nevertheless so disturbingly moving?” We might answer her querulous question with the words of Windburn, who once remarked, in his Meditations as the Sun Sets, “What is really awful in human affairs is what is unseen. The misdeed itself is nothing, a trifle, compared to the thought that sired it.” Perhaps Davidson, engaged in so strenuous and prolonged a polemic with his great teacher, in the end could not help but agree with him. As the curtain falls, a grand orchestral coda hammers with relentless Lutheran piety one note, on and on, until the audience, at last beginning to understand, finally leaves piecemeal, a gentleman rising and putting on his coat here, a lady collecting her gloves and scarf there. The hammering continues until the auditorium is empty, and we are reminded of the hammer blows in the spaceship bodyshop at Vuffon. For what did those honest, simple hammers do but remove — or attempt to remove — imperfections in what was once an unblemished, shining, and perfect surface?

This story copyright © 1997 by Michael Kandel. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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