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Los Angeles Times

OCTOBER 14, 2006



'Wunderkabinet' plays with the facts
In her minimalist multimedia work at REDCAT, Pamela Z weaves together sounds, visions and dreamlike reflections on our data-saturated world.

Los Angeles Times

By Josef Woodard , Special to The Times.

REDCAT has proved itself fertile ground for vibrant new takes on musical theater, hinting at what the genre might be and where it can go. Thursday night, the boundary-stretching continued with the area premiere of Pamela Z's "Wunderkabinet." Although it's a strain to neatly describe the work or identify the context in which it belongs, something fresh is clearly afoot.

Self-reliant vocalist and technical wizard Z's concoction — which premiered in her hometown of San Francisco a year ago — is an hourlong multimedia opera chock full of lovely melodies over looping, minimalist textures and a crazed caldron of trivial factoids and fictions. Its scrolling written text and minimalist musical lingo — the work is scored by Z and Matthew Brubeck — at times recalls the Louis Andriessen / Peter Greenaway work "Writing to Vermeer," but it mostly charts its own new expressive path.

Z's minimalist credo is also extended beyond sound. Her lean but resourceful staging, with digital technology hidden behind vintage-looking props, is built around scattered screens, where most of the layered visual action takes place, courtesy of Christina McPhee's video work. In another violation of tradition, Z places her sole instrumentalist, top-hatted cellist Alex Kelly, high up on a riser-like anti-orchestra pit.

Taking its title from a fictional museum, based on the proudly unconventional Museum of Jurassic Technology (also a direct source for its texts), "Wunderkabinet" is only loosely narrative-based. Its central premise concerns a woman, Alice May Williams, who writes to the Mt. Wilson Observatory about perceived "knowledge." When she gets no response, she travels there but gets lost in the "Wunderkabinet."

Mostly, the opera involves dreamlike reflections on a world of dizzy, swirling data. Fittingly, we first encounter Z in bed, grunting musically as if in a fitful dream. Z plays both the protagonist and an imaginary, dyslexic opera singer, Alemap Zed ("Pamela Z" in reverse). Once in the "Wunderkabinet," fragments of information, useful and otherwise, float by in fuzzy layers, matching the musical tapestry.

A steady but distractible flow of language affords Z one of her favorite artistic activities, that of manipulating words and info. Elegantly sung phrases jump out of the whole, such as "the mechanism of forgetting," "hovering in a space of wonder" and, from a lovely, lyrical aria, "I believe the sky opens and closes."

"Wunderkabinet" is an ambitious project for which Z is uniquely suited, given her expertise in blending new technologies and the ancient, organic qualities of voice (and she's got a strong, flexible one). She has also harnessed the power of doing it by herself.

The piece affirms that Z is a recovering wunderkind now growing up nicely, without losing her sense of wonder, possibility or gleeful absurdity.


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