Elephant Steps: A Fearful Radio Show
Elephant Steps represents something new and important in the history of American theater – a truly contemporary opera.
Elephant Steps is a sterling example of mixed-means theater, where sound and light, language and music, images and movement, graphics and films, incense and machinery, props and performers are incorporated into a spectacular mix. The materials are mostly those of traditional opera or musical theater, but what makes Elephant Steps different is how they are used. Each element is as important as any other; rather than enhancing each other in traditional ways, the elements function separately and often non-synchronously. What Foreman and Silverman have achieved is a different, more contemporary way of putting operatic material together. As a theatrical experience, Elephant Steps is stupendous, multi-sensory, original, diffuse, overwhelming, faintly frightening, and always surprising. Elephant Steps reflects its authors’ conscious decisions about the appropriate handling of every theatrical element. Its major theme is the processes of alternative operatic creation; but since this, like other Richard Foreman plays, deals with states of mind, let me suggest that its ultimate subject is spiritual development. (Another critic advises “not to ask what it is about; it is no more centered than life itself.”) Foreman, who wrote the libretto, speaks of a quest. “Hartman is looking for enlightenment. He has a mysterious guru by the name of Reinhardt. The reactionary factions keep warning him to stop seeing Reinhardt, but Hartman persists. After visiting Nighttown, and then being abducted and grilled in a radio station, where he dreams of returning to his childhood, he finally climbs a ladder, looks in the window of Reinhardt’s house, and what he sees brings him illumination.” First produced in Tanglewood in 1968, Elephant Steps came to New York two years later. It took even longer to get itself commercially recorded. Like all genuinely innovative art, this work weathered seasons in the wilderness. I for one would like to see Elephant Steps again; but hearing its music on records is the next best thing.
–from the original liner notes to M2X 33044 by Richard Kostelanetz Writer & Editor, Author of The Theatre of Mixed Means (1968) & The End of Intelligent Writing (1974)
A Note from the Composer In the program for the 1970 New York premiere of Elephant Steps is a cryptic albeit typical note by my collaborator, Richard Foreman, referring to the work’s premiere in 1968: “A work manifesting at the time of its creation, certain romantic tendencies which the ensuing two years have clarified as such, i.e., the end of an era.” Reading this statement so many years later, I am struck by how perfectly Richard described the end of the sixties and the influence of that era on the creation of Elephant Steps. Conceived aurally as a phantasmagorical radio show – a mythical “Big Broadcast” if you will – Elephant Steps was once described by Jerome Robbins as reminding him of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, broadcast thirty years earlier. At the time of Elephant Steps’ composition, I was active in the American and European new music scene and enjoyed a career in the theater writing music for plays at Lincoln Center, Stratford, Canada, Broadway, and regional theater while teaching at Tanglewood in the summer. At the same time, as Richard Foreman put it in the program, I “played guitar with lots of big shots.” Meanwhile, Richard Foreman was at the very beginning stage of formulating a highly personal and original theatrical language and stagecraft technique that would continue to blossom for several decades under the banner of his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. He shared my interest in the surrealists of the twenties and the aim to transpose those influences into a current (1968) theater piece. Using the combination of our interests and backgrounds, we conceived a work whose aim was, along with shifting musical languages, lights, sound, words, and action, to keep the audience in unresolved suspension. The premiere took place at Tanglewood, a serious music festival, which recalled the European summer festivals of the twenties where pieces of theatrical “entertainment” (some incorporating mixed media) by Brecht and Weill, Hindemith, Milhaud, and Cocteau, would be performed with great impact alongside of intense atonal works of the day. Elephant Steps was the first opera commissioned by Tanglewood since Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1947. By chance, many of our musicians would go on to become famous in their later careers. Our conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, made a splash in his East Coast debut. The concertmaster, Eugene Drucker, was to become first violin of the Emerson Quartet, and the young orchestra contained future members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Elephant Steps was just the beginning of a long history of collaboration between Richard Foreman and myself. Together we would go on to make many more of these “Wars of the Worlds” over the next twenty years.
– Stanley Silverman, March 2013
Scrubwoman: Karen Altman Hannah: Susan Belling Max: Luther Enstad Doctor: Roland Gagnon Otto: Larry Marshall Rock Singer: Luther Rix Ragtime Lady: Marilyn Sokol Hartman: Philip Steele Archangel: Michael Tilson Thomas Chorus: Patti Austin, Jane Gunter, Dianne Higginbotham, Jane Magruder, Patricia Price, Albertine Robinson, Maeretha Stewart, Rose Taylor Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor Electronic music by Pril Smiley Music by Stanley Silverman Libretto by Richard Foreman