Oh dear, I thought as the box office attendant at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre handed me a pair of earplugs, remarking, “You might need these for the finale. It gets pretty loud.” And it’s true: Chornobyldorf, the wonderfully strange and infinitely imaginative new opera by Ukrainian composers Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko is at times monumentally loud, but also unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Subtitled “an archeological opera in seven novels,” Chornobyldorf is the ideal musical theater experiment for a festival like Prototype, which is presenting the US premiere. The composers imagine a post-apocalyptic future in which elements of the culture we know (or do we?) are discovered and misinterpreted by future archeologists as they grasp toward authentic performance. It’s like Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, but Chornobyldorf’s future archeologists have far more to work with than old episodes of The Simpsons.
Elements of Greek myth have survived, as have rituals and sounds we typically associate with Orthodox worship. But everything is slightly askew. The light of the Holy Spirit that seems to be depicted on a platform upstage might actually be radiation, while electric wires are worn as jewelry (fascinating sets and costumes by Kateryna Markush). Hypnotic video depicting the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station and the Chernobyl exclusion zone give off the impression of Old Testament prophecy — which it might be since both are currently on the front line of a war.
The composers are similarly clever in the way they remix existing musical styles to create something new. They borrow a theme from Bach’s Mass in B Minor and, after a spot-on Baroque performance, proceed to make it Metal. Orthodox polyphony evolves into a techno-rave. Traditional Ukrainian “white singing” exists side-by-side with what we now recognize as opera singing. It all underlines the truth that the limits of genre and style (a false religion for which critics are very much the high priests) are artificial barriers we place on ourselves and on culture.
In addition to composing and directing Chornobyldorf, Grygoriv and Razumeiko perform with the cast, singing and playing multiple instruments — often incorrectly, or so we might think. After two hours of hearing strings struck with drumsticks and accordions left to hang, wheezing as they bop up and down, I’m not sure we ever fully knew how to play these instruments.
And then there are Evhen Bal’s invented instruments, like a trombone with three bells (Bal makes Dr. Seuss’s wildest fantasies a reality). Musician Ihor Boichuk, who represents the entire brass, woodwind, and percussion section of this mighty little orchestra, heroically blows into the three-belled trombone, producing a sound not unlike a humpback whale, and as it gets louder, a dying elephant. Late in the show, every member of the cast takes up an instrument, forming an impromptu marching band. This is not an opera to rest on its concept and ambition. Grygoriv and Razumeiko deliver plenty of showmanship and a flawless execution, leaving the audience stunned.
Chornobyldorf is an opera about the joys of cultural appropriation. In fact, it beautifully demonstrates that culture is appropriation. Grygoriv and Razumeiko may be imagining the future culture of humanity, but they are creating the current culture of Ukraine, something that is bold, experimental, playful, and very much alive.