The Common Opus at the Winningstad Theater on July 30 billed itself as “A Farewell to Covid,” but it was a bittersweet farewell–which is not to say that any of us miss that existential dread and monotonous apocalypse, but that we will still be living with the aftershocks for decades. TCO was a community project requiring the efforts of over a hundred people over two years. Guiding this massive endeavor is Big Mouth Society’s founder and de facto leader (though she dislikes being called the “leader of BMS”): composer, vocalist and pedagogue Emily Lau.
In moments of change and turmoil it can always feel like the end is near. Creeping blankets of wildfire smoke, worsening snowstorms and hurricanes that strike Los Angeles and Las Vegas are enough to tell us something is wrong. It has been a near constant in human history that people believe the end of the world is near. Our ancestors may have attributed these to Zeus, Set or Raijin as revenge for humanity’s arrogance, and while we may have replaced our faith in the gods with faith in data and science, our change in faith has yet to lead us towards further salvation.
Our mental concept of the Apocalypse is far more dramatic than the reality. Apocalypsis, meaning “unveiling” or “disclosure,” was the original Greek name for the final book of the Bible, which we know as the Book of Revelations. The Apocalypse isn’t a single-moment collapse, but a slow and brutal decay. And the revelation is that we are living through this all the time.
The end of the world does not mean the end of all worlds, however. Humanity and nature will find a way to survive, even if it renders the world unrecognizable to us right now. These are the themes The Common Opus tackles: coping with a changing world and the perseverance of the arts in the face of that change. As Emily Lau told me in an interview after the concert, she is concerned with “telling stories of our time.”
Everything is not perfect
The Common Opus moved at a fast pace from number to number with a wide variety of pieces, both musically and tonally. From Renaissance-esque open fifths and polyphony to major-key sing-along numbers, from bluesy minor-key jaunts to open viola da gamba drones. Lau wrote a show for a wide audience while not sacrificing skill, expressivity and creativity.
Audiences may enter a show looking for a perfect experience. This is not that, and it doesn’t need to be. Lau made it clear from the outset: despite the years of work that went into this production, it is not perfect. As she said it was only the day before that all the members had gotten together for a single complete rehearsal! The time, people-power and money required to pull off something this massive is staggering, and an indication of their commitment to timely art. The Common Opus was also far more diverse than your typical classical concert, both onstage and in the audience.
The overture featured members from the BMS ensemble-in-residence, The Broken Consort. Instrumentation varied throughout the show to fit the needs of the music, with the opening texture of percussion, harp and viola da gamba creating a mysterious, primeval sound over a droning G. The opening song, “Wild Fire,” isn’t about Covid, which becomes shorthand for a time and place: its meaning is palpable for everyone who lived through 2020 in Oregon, when for a whole week the sky was red and yellow from wildfire smoke. The two-syllable word means in common parlance basically anything bad that happened from 2020 until now.
Monologues broke up the music, though they tended to be heart-wrenching so it was hardly a reprieve from the melancholy. One highlight was the song “Everything Is,” performed by Jesse Ehrenberg, assuring us that “everything is all right now” (note the emphasis for the double meaning in that line). The first set ended with a sing-along asking for us to give ourselves grace.
If the first half was the darker, pessimistic side of the ongoing apocalypse, then the post-intermission half was the hopeful side. “If All the Beasts Were Gone” and “If All the Men Were Gone” were inspired by words attributed to Chief Seattle, imagining what the world would be without humans and, likewise, what the world would be like without animals.
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.
Near the end of the show the mood picked up, slightly. Near the end the ensemble sang “A Quiet Day” with poetry by Kim Stafford and music by Lau that imagines a simpler life without any of the worries of modernity such as commutes, boring meetings, uncomfortable fancy shoes and worrisome news. It’s as if John Lennon’s “Imagine” was actually good. The penultimate song, “Pandemic Coffee Restoration Ritual,” was an ode to the little things, a reminder for us to savor the little things that help us get through the day. The final song, “Free,” encapsulated the show well in its final verse:
We stare at death
From this side
As sunset breathes with the morning tide.
May we all meet
in the green field with grace
we will someday be
“Everyone has something to contribute”
Many of us may unwittingly subscribe to a supply-and-demand, marketized perspective on musical talent: talent is in limited supply, and the more non-professionals you get involved the worse the show becomes. (This seems to be what I heard one person express criticizing the community choir in Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form as we were walking out of the Oregon Symphony at the 2018 premiere. If that person is reading this right now, I hope you’re having a good day.) Big Mouth Society wants to work against this bias, breaking down the line between amateur and professional and finding value in all musician’s unique talents.
They also make a point of paying their performers well, understanding that paying musicians for their work will find its way back. Musicians spend their money on concerts, equipment, records and CDs, and other services, that spent money finds its way back to musicians, and the cycle continues.
Lau sees herself as a composer whose music suits the needs of the performance. At the same time, she told me she doesn’t want to be seen as the leader or “genius” behind Big Mouth Society. Lau plays her part however large or small. She spent a fair bit of the show onstage during the performance, though her plan was to not sing or conduct at all. But “the piece asked me to sing,” Lau told me in a Zoom conversation. She was not the lone composer on the program: the poetry of Annie Lighthart inspired a few songs, local poet Kim Stafford has a few numbers, and the song “Tell me, O Shadows” near the end comes to us from Suzanne LaGrande.
Lau believes that everyone has something to contribute: many involved with The Common Opus played their part by singing in chorus, joining the collective onstage without the spotlight on them. You may not have been able to tell that the blues singer you heard was operatic soprano and Federale member Maria Karlin. Someone like grammy-nominated countertenor Reggie Mobley becomes another part of the ensemble, alongside people who may be singing onstage for the first time. I also recognized local performers and some of Lau’s former students at Reed College.
A show of strength
Lau described Big Mouth Society as an “artistic exploration,” an avenue for various musical goings-on. She also told me The Common Opus was a culmination with all sorts of art forms together: music, song, dancing, choreography, visuals and poetry. It is the most ambitious project they have tried, and Lau considers it a show of strength that opens up their future to new types of projects. Things they want to tackle require larger budgets, more time and people power to accomplish.
BMS projects are collaborative, based on the skills and interests of all people involved, from amateurs to professionals. It is noble to take a very traditional approach to music making one takes on from years in music school to being a working musician out in the world. Lau did not do her graduate work in composition, which she thinks of as a strength to her compositional practice. For her every project is different, it is a new opportunity.
She is only part of a larger group, and she struggled for a long time making sure that it wasn’t all about her. Unfortunately, those who provide funding like to see a leader, a personality on which they can attach their grants. And I myself am doing this, by talking about Big Mouth Society through one person. Lau is honest that she still has a lot to figure out. Music is a lifelong endurance test and very few reach their zenith so young, but groups like the Big Mouth are making some impressive, ambitious projects that are of the moment in a fresh way.
I also asked her if The Common Opus can give audiences something to expect for their upcoming show, Queer and Dear, and she surprisingly said no. Big Mouth follows the wills of its many members, and each show is sure to bring something very different in tone. But there are things that remain constant through all of BMS’ concerts: a diverse cast of voices, a focus on audience enjoyment, and their political consciousness.
Queer and Dear will be at Portland Center stage, co-directed by Lau and Betty Poops, drag persona of violinist Bryce Caster. It is not just a drag show, nor is it just a choir show: it is both. I noted how it may be the first concert to have music by Samuel Barber, Pauline Oliveros and Dolly Parton all on the same program–and why not? It’s all music.