Lucid dreaming an opera

I never put too much stock in drawing sharp lines between our influences and our own work. However, I am very interested in drawing blurrier ones between whatever and whatever, and for other reasons than “intent.”

So let’s follow certain lines of flight from a short opera I wrote into the philosophy of faces, the poetics of plastic surgery, and the art of lucid dreaming; all in service of a rejuvenated conception of the genre.

Scene 1: The face, what a horror

(nelle vesti di Virtù)
V'adoro, pupille,
saette d'amore,
le vostre faville
son grate nel sen.

I wrote this thing called “The Shape, Skeleton, and Foliage” in 2014(?) while at Peabody Conservatory. It is based on a scenario in which a woman visits a plastic surgeon to have her face turned into a landscape.

Perhaps everything that followed the spark of this idea was just a pale attempt to re-capture the initial feeling of having it. I was sitting in a class about music and visual art, when suddenly the categories of the portrait and landscape— so ordinary in painting— seemed to expose a devastating human limit. A limit that meant we can never see the landscape of each other.

I assume this is the same sharp feeling that spurred Romantic artists to populate their landscapes with Rückenfiguren.

Caspar David Friedrich,   Frau vor der untergehenden Sonne

Caspar David Friedrich, Frau vor der untergehenden Sonne

In a short chapter titled “Year Zero: Faciality” from the Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari elevate the stakes of the portrait-landscape issue by characterizing the “face” as a more insidious problem.

The face, what a horror. It is naturally a lunar landscape, with its pores, planes, matts, bright colors, whiteness, and holes: there is no need for a close-up to make it inhuman; it is naturally a close-up, and naturally inhuman, a monstrous hood.

The face is a "special apparatus of power," a literal wall separating us, a foreign element introduced into the natural landscape. Bridging the fields of semiotics and psychology, they are saying that faces separate us by imposing this blank wall punctuated with these deep holes: eyes, mouth, ears. Our insistence on giving preference to faces overrides our natural relationship with everything. We start seeing faces everywhere, and what we don’t perceive through this faciality we can’t really perceive at all.

I don’t think we can ever get over the impossibility of our own face. Nowhere is this more clear and more horrifying than in the scenario of facial surgery. But what if it was your only way out of something much worse?

You know when someone looks at you, and you let them in, their eyes push inside you, all I see are faces. (Scene 2: The Shape, Skeleton, & Foliage)

Scene 2: An Aristotelian unity of dreams

I opted for a classical unity of time, place, and action in The Shape, Skeleton, & Foliage. In austere Baroque opera, the plot would be framed by reports of and references to surrounding events: we would not see a battle, it would be hinted at or otherwise clumsily handled through dialogue. This has the strange effect of creating an environment that is both vague and suspenseful. Anyone might come in and say anything at any point.

Dreams seem to operate in a similar way.

Lucid dreaming, then, is the phenomenon of being conscious and guiding your dreams while inside of them. This passage from Jesse Ball's book on the practice was eye-opening as I thought it could apply to the experience of opera. He recommends equalizing the significance of what happens in your sleeping and waking worlds.

The first habit that you want to think about is: to not take things that happen in life very seriously. Drift about like a little boat and let the water take you where it will.... But why would I say- don't take things too seriously? It is because what we want is for the things that happen in dreams to have equal weight with the things that happen during the day. Life is a kind of illusion, just as dreams are, although with life, the same things persist day after day. You come back to them and they are still there. That's what persisting is. If you don't know what an illusion is- I will tell you! It is something that seems to demand all of your attention, but that you don't need to pay quite so much attention to.

His definition of an illusion felt particularly apt as a characterization of opera.

Scene 3: A Spectacle of society

One way to encourage lucid dreaming is repeat to oneself, “tonight I will wake up in my dream.” I had my first lucid dream in March of 2018. The visual work of the dream was just an awkward extension of the circumstance I fell asleep under, but the words I said (or thought) in the dream had magical power.

Guy Debord wrote “Le spectacle n'est pas un ensemble d'images, mais un rapport social entre personnes, médiatisé par des images,” which essentially sums up the philosophical position on the power of the image. Though, in the symbolic world of dreams speech is an important instrument.

Sound is subtler and more insidious than spectacle, and history is filled with philosophers either oversimplifying or skirting entirely a complex discussion of what it means and how it works. It is easy to translate the face into a white wall and to draw little beady circles for eyes and a mouth to suggest its boundless psychological depths. But what of the sounds that mouth lets out? Deleuze and Guattari mediate their discussion of music, through Boulez’s ideas of smooth and striated time or by making a musical discussion into something else.

The analogue of lucid dreaming provides a way to blend the quotidian and the unreal/hyperreal, etc.: it gives us a place where visual representation and sound are both symbolic and abstract. My goal now is to explore lucid dreaming that I might begin to create within them.

The Shape, Skeleton, & Foliage (perusal score)