Bang the tomato can

Ravenshead, a not-so-traditional opera, is one gem in this week’s Edgewise Festival—a new 11-day contemporary arts showcase from UC Davis Presents

Rinde Eckert inRavenshead, looking rather serious:Can’t recall that sea shanty, eh?<i>Ravenshead</i>, looking rather serious: Can’t recall that sea shanty, eh?

Rinde Eckert inRavenshead, looking rather serious:Can’t recall that sea shanty, eh?Ravenshead, looking rather serious: Can’t recall that sea shanty, eh?

UC Davis Presents is bringing an opera to town. It’s called Ravenshead, and it’s one of the anchors of the new—and decidedly different—Edgewise Festival, which will run from May 3 to May 13.

But you should be careful about the associations that the term “opera” may invoke. And don’t go with the expectation of hearing the fat lady sing at the end. There is no fat lady in Ravenshead, no tale of tragic love and no tenor who dies in the third act.

Instead, there’s Rinde Eckert—a big, tall man with a shaved head and a powerful voice that runs the gamut from classically derived technique to twitchy repetition à la David Byrne. He plays Richard Ravenshead, an ambitious, self-promoting man who seeks a place in the history books by attempting a solo voyage around the world. Of course, Ravenshead is something of a con man—not only deluding others, but also fooling himself in terms of his abilities as a sailor. And troubles soon ensue.

Ravenshead is pretty far removed from what you’d find at the San Francisco Opera, or at the Met. “Ravenshead is more influenced by Jim Morrison of the Doors doing his “Lizard King” performance art than it is influenced by 19th-century opera,” says the piece’s composer, Steve Mackey. “I never really developed a taste for the operatic voice, trained to carry through the hall with a vibrato that you can drive a truck through. I grew up with singers who use microphones—which enable them to employ a simpler, more personal, quirkier tone.

“Rinde Eckert has it all,” Mackey adds. “He has a great vernacular singing style, but he can also belt it out like a heroic tenor.” Eckert also wrote the opera’s text.

Ravenshead uses a small, conductor-less electro-acoustic ensemble that relates more to a rock band than to an operatic composer such as Bellini. “Which is fine by me,” Mackey says. The ensemble is led by noted boundary-bender Paul Dresher on electric guitar; it also includes electronic mallet percussion and drum kit in addition to violin, bassoon and sax.

Mackey came to UC Davis as an undergrad in 1973 after pursuing a semi-career as a freestyle skier. He’d been living in Marysville and he’d played electric guitar in a rock band. His musical horizons broadened, considerably, when he took a music class from D. Kern Holoman at UC Davis. Mackey is now on the music faculty at Princeton, and he’s written pieces that have been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and others.

But Mackey still plays the electric guitar. In fact, that’s his specialty. Mackey knows his instrument of choice is still not part of the curriculum at most of the nation’s music conservatories, but that doesn’t deter him. “It’s the voice of my generation,” he says. He’s written two concertos and several chamber works for the instrument, and he’s released a solo disc of electric guitar music—Lost and Found—that includes a seven-minute track, appropriately titled “Grungy.”

Nevertheless, it was Ravenshead that captured the attention of Brian McCurdy, head of UC Davis Presents. “It’s a new work I’d been following for some time,” he says. McCurdy, a native of Canada who recently joined the UC Davis staff, adds that a bit of serendipity was involved. “You know, it’s a very funny story,” he says, “because I booked this show because I was fascinated by it. I had no idea that Steve Mackey was a UC Davis graduate when I booked the show, and I learned that later on. It was sort of the icing on the cake.”

The opera, directed by Tony Taccone, has played at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and on the college circuit since its premiere in 1998. In fact, Ravenshead is probably the most performed new American opera since John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, which made its debut in 1991.

Of course, Ravenshead is only one of seven programs in the Edgewise Festival—all of which are new or nearly new works that draw on multiple disciplines and artistic approaches. Some of the performers have come to town before under the UC Davis Presents banner; Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet have visited on occasion. But this is the first time that UC Davis Presents has presented a string of contemporary works in sequence.

McCurdy says that the Edgewise Festival—now slated to be staged every other year—represents a significant commitment to bring in new and surprising works, in addition to touring orchestras, string quartets and big-name jazz ensembles. “One thing that’s edgy about the series is that all the borders are breaking down—the borders between rock music, classical music, supposedly high art and low art. And to me, that’s the most fascinating and probably most important thing about contemporary work,” McCurdy says.

“We are going to do this sometimes as a series [over the course of a season], and sometimes as a festival,” he explained. “This year, there were a lot of great contemporary artists available [around the same time], so we looked at it and said, ‘Hey, guess what? A festival!’ ”

Some of the artists—Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet—have loyal followings and need little introduction.

Others, such as French-Canadian theater artist Robert Lepage, are new to local audiences. Lepage will bring his new piece, The Far Side of the Moon, which incorporates a soundtrack written by performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson. Lepage plays two brothers and a host of secondary characters in a story that uses the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union as a metaphor for other explorations. His résumé includes work for the often-theatrical singer Peter Gabriel (Lepage handled the staging for Gabriel’s “Secret World Tour”). He has also directed at the Royal National Theatre in London, and has staged Japanese versions of Macbeth and The Tempest in Tokyo.

The series will also include concerts by violinist Jorja Fleezanis (who was a favorite of the late Sacramento native and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen when she served as assistant concertmaster with the San Francisco Symphony in the 1980s); pianist Lara Downes (whose multi-concert survey of 20th-century keyboard works last year earned many compliments); and June Watanabe’s dance company, in a new work (fresh from a premiere a few days earlier at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). Thursday, May 3, 8 p.m. Freeborn Hall, UC Davis. Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso, performing on African instruments, piano and electric keyboards with a small ensemble. The music is based on their score for The Screens, originally written to accompany the play, now adapted as a concert piece. The music draws on the spare atmospherics of Glass’ post-minimalist style and percussive African traditions. $14-$28.

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m. Davis Art Center, 1919 F St., Davis. Pianist Lara Downes traces keyboard innovation from early 20th-century pioneers (Scriabin’s transcendentalism, Debussy’s impressionism) through American renegades (Henry Cowell) to new 21st-century works. $6-$12.

Also Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., Lower Hickey Gymnasium, UC Davis. Choreographer June Watanabe presents 5/15/45—the last dance, an evocation of upbeat 1940s swing dancing set against dislocation of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. $5-$7.

Saturday, May 5, 8 p.m., Freeborn Hall, UC Davis. Kronos Quartet, well-known pioneers who have extended the string quartet into many branches of world music, will perform music by Steve Reich and Nevada County resident Terry Riley, as well as other living composers with African, Southeast Asian and Latin American roots. $14-$28.

Tuesday, May 8, 8 p.m., Main Theatre, UC Davis. The electro-acoustic opera Ravenshead, featuring Rinde Eckert with music by Steve Mackey (see above). $13.50-$27.

Wednesday, May 9, 8 p.m. Davis Community Church, 412 C St., Davis. Violinist Jorja Fleezanis with pianist Karl Paulnack. Fleezanis, concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1989, will perform music by her friend John Adams (Road Movies) along with music by Copland, George Crumb, William Bolcom and others. $6-$12.

Saturday, May 12, 8 p.m., Main Theatre, UC Davis. French-Canadian artist Robert Lepage performs The Far Side of the Moon, featuring music written by Laurie Anderson. $13.50-$27.

Sunday, May 13, 2 p.m. A second performance of Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon. $13.50-$27.