A scene from the Norway debut of It's All True, with scenography by Prof. Peter Ksander.
A scene from the Norway debut of It's All True, with scenography by Prof. Peter Ksander.

Theatre Professor Designs Punk Opera

Experimental musical is based on archive of iconic punk band Fugazi.

Katie Pelletier ’03 | April 9, 2018

The punk band Fugazi is an unlikely source of inspiration for an opera, but Brooklyn-based experimental group, Object Collection, recently made an opera based on the band’s entire live archive call It's All True. To produce this offbeat new project, the creators sought out Reed’s own mastermind scenographer, Prof. Peter Ksander [theatre 2011–].

The project began in an email exchange between Prof. Ksander and Object Collection cofounder Travis Just. The entire archive of Fugazi’s live shows from 1987 to 2003 was being put online and made available to the public. Fugazi, known for its uncompromising stand against the rock and roll establishment, playing all-ages shows, and never charging more than $5 a ticket, had played over 1,000 shows over 15 years, and the archive would be considerable. “Wouldn’t it be cool to make something with this someday?” Ksander and Just wrote to one another.

In 2014 the live archive project was complete and the Fugazi opera was soon underway.

First made for the Borealis Festival in Norway, where it was commissioned, composer Just took all the instrumental sounds that occurred between songs and sets of Fugazi performances, listening to over 1,500 hours of archive material. He collaged them together into a musical piece which he then transcribed and scored for a live band (a guitar quartet with two drummers). Meanwhile, Object Collection’s other cofounder, writer Kara Feely, wrote the libretto with all the text that Just pulled from the interlude moments during his “obsessive deep dive” into the archive.

“The idea was that we would make this piece out of everything but the songs in the archive,” Ksander explains. The work is comprised of all the interstitial material: tuning, noodling guitar work, chatter, bantering with the audience, all the strong political feelings the band voiced on stage, and feelings about how people in the room should behave (Fugazi was notoriously disapproving of aggressive slam dancing, fighting, and crowd surfing). The show is called an opera-in-suspension. Throughout the piece, something is about to happen, or has just happened. “It’s all built out of the in-betweens,” Ksander says.

With this to work from, Prof. Ksander faced some obstacles as the show’s scenographer. He had to figure out whether the visual components (the lighting, set, and scene design) should borrow from other Object Collection work, experimental theatre, or rock and roll. But Fugazi eschewed rock and roll trappings such as flashing lights and elaborate displays. Ksander notes that in listening to the archive, you hear again and again the band saying, “Could you just leave the lights the way they are? Are there any house lights? Could you just turn on the house lights?”

How could he design a show in keeping with the band’s ethos? And second, how could he design a show that then had to be transported to Norway? The script has no central narrative, though there are through lines, and its experimental qualities meant that the characters who speak the lines could be anywhere, doing anything. “It could be anything, so where do you start making some structure to make a choice becomes the question,” Ksander says.

Ultimately, he chose props and scenery that could be sent to Norway ahead of time, like folding chairs, tables, and boxes. He then designed a series of floor plans that would be changed out at each interlude in the opera. Making the show a second time for the North American premiere, he added more changes in the lights, playing with the way the lighting might counter or augment the energy in the room at certain moments of the opera. Taking into account the band’s preference for house lights over elaborate lighting design, he designed the opera’s lighting with floor lamps and bare lightbulbs and chose a daylight temperature for the backlights, which at one point he turns on the audience.

The opera is not actually about Fugazi. Ksander says, “It’s not about using their name to make the thing popular; it wasn’t about publicity. It was about our real love for their ethos, and their spirit, and their thinking—and their music on top of that.”

The band, who agreed to allow their archive to be used for the opera, said they were “blown away and disoriented by the work.” In a statement, Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto said, “I still don’t know how to react to the work but there are many strains in what they’ve accomplished that parallel whatever ethic we might have had as a band: there is a diligent, contrarian method of working, there is a refusal to coddle sensibilities and of course there are serious politics at play.” The show is not Mamma Mia! with Fugazi tracks, the Guardian noted in its review.  Instead, it’s “a thrilling ordeal,” loud and confounding.

Tags: Cool Projects, Professors