The Greatest of Failures
A bunch of anarchist-hearted artists set out to make an opera about WTO. What could possibly go wrong?
What with everyone throwing bombs of ideas, and the police scared and shooty, and the streets of downtown Seattle looking more like Beirut, well, of course the WTO riots of 1999 had to be turned into theater—they were theater. And it wasn't wrong to think, actually: opera. A mass mess of humanity like that, all gigantic and many-headed? Perfect for opera.
Easy name, too: WTOpera.
None of this is fiction. This is what happened. On the 10th anniversary of the WTO riots, leading up to the winter of 2009, a fierce force of Seattle artists was planning to unveil a huge production they'd been working on for almost a year and a half. They wanted it to become part of the canon of American performance—Seattle's contribution to that canon, much the way WTO had been Seattle's contribution to world politics in the 1990s—falling somewhere between the Vegas spectacular Blue Man Group and Philip Glass's revered opera Einstein on the Beach.
It was created not by fiat but by the collective, in a creative process deliberately organized to reflect the anarchist spirit of the riots. No single person would wield the power. Democracy would not be just the content, it would also be the form. Eventually, what was nicknamed WTOpera came to be called Anarchist Songbook. Its very first scene featured a female protester named Ivy, Chief Sealth, and a chorus, and the setting was Eighth Avenue and Olive Way at 10:03 a.m. on November 30, 1999, the first day of WTO. The stage directions call for singers, in a "foggy November haze," to "whisper like pigeons carrying secrets," then to "fade out like wings fluttering towards Bethlehem." Everyone involved agreed that this prologue, written by composer Byron Au Yong, was haunting and beautiful. It was just a fragment.
Over the many months of the process of creation, there were something like 10 different composers, all writing in different modes—classical, downtown-experimental, rock opera, musical theater. There were multiple writers, directors, and producers. The score called for singers, actors, dancers, a marching band that could switch from anarchist-wild to militia-sharp (referencing real-life WTO performance troupe Infernal Noise Brigade), and, in the pit below, a thunderous band of 100 electric guitars.
A beautiful dance duet was choreographed, with a policewoman and a male anarchist loping around each other in slow motion like confused animals in an uncertain habitat. Its climax was a chain reaction of failed attempts at unveiling each other from behind the bandana and the riot gear, ending in violence. An entirely different scene featured a funny, playful musical-theater number with a cop responding to the escalating rage of an immigrant landlord (based on a real person) who wants the squatters out of his building. A chorus of representatives from all perspectives—protesters, police, property owners—chimes in, all the voices competing to be heard: "How can this happen in America?" They peel off into a chant: "How can this how can this how can this..."
The creators wanted Anarchist Songbook to add a chapter to Seattle's history of activism. The show would unite WTO with Chief Sealth's famous resistance speech, the Wobblies massacre in Everett in 1916, even the vaguely antiauthoritarian folk hero D. B. Cooper. Cooper jumped out of an airplane somewhere over Washington on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1971 with $200,000 of an airline's money—the only unsolved airjacking in American history. At some point in the action of Anarchist Songbook, Cooper would parachute in, a surrealist figment. At another point, this image-idea would appear: a flaming piano floating off into the Sound. The central story line would turn on a love triangle among anarchists, one of them ending up an FBI informant.
The seed of what became Anarchist Songbook was first tossed out at a barbecue at the home of a Seattle composer in the summer of 2008, and it grew quickly, with the easy force of a good idea—and partly because it had to, in order to make the deadline of the 10th anniversary of the riots. Its creators—known Seattle artists tired of doing one-offs, some hoping to realize one Big Idea before getting married or having children—held dozens of meetings that always ran far over their allotted time in underground coffeehouses and each other's homes. They e-mailed scores and scripts back and forth in a Yahoo group and squatted in available rehearsal halls and university classrooms. Auditions were held, a chorus and soloists and dancers selected. Anarchist Songbook got all the way to a behind-the-scenes tryout at ACT Theater.
But Anarchist Songbook went nowhere but wrong. Failure. Total failure.
It ended, as luck would have it, in anarchy.
It may be the biggest and best failure story in Seattle production history. Every once in a while still, you'll hear an artist in Seattle ask: Whatever happened to that WTOpera?
But no one involved with it is eager to answer.
"Oh, the time I almost went to the lunatic asylum?" says Annie Fanning. "You want to talk about that? This whole thing just makes me look like a lunatic!"
Fanning was the librettist, meaning she was responsible for the words. Very late in the process, other writers got involved, including Rich Jensen (onetime Sub Pop GM) and Stacey Levine (eventually a Genius Award winner). But for most of the process, it was just Annie Fanning.
And she does not want to talk about it.
But after several episodes of e-mail begging and pleading, each one earning a response she culled from one of her writings—a piece of a script or a short fictional story intended to convey, metaphorically, her desire not to talk about this ever again—she finally relented to a conversation in her North Seattle backyard.
This yard is lovingly overgrown and, at its far end, dotted with many pots containing saplings. "I am a tree ambassador," Fanning announces. "I have saved these trees from certain death." This pronouncement makes her sound unstable. Her past reticence begins to seem a wise idea. But when she is finished telling her WTOpera story, she is a completely sympathetic, pleasantly weird character. (And she really is a tree ambassador—it is a real thing, something to do with the city's tree ordinance.)
"I had been a stay-at-home mom, so I was desperate for creative validation, I guess," she starts. "Looking back, I think it was totally ridiculous to think I could write an opera in a year. There were problems almost from the beginning."
Cut to Mike Min, the only other person involved in WTOpera who had what seems, in retrospect, like a singular role, despite everyone's desire to work collectively. Ask the composers and directors the question: "Whatever happened to that WTOpera?" They will tell you: "Talk to Mike and Annie." They will also tell you: Mike and Annie did not agree on how Anarchist Songbook should turn out.
Mike wants to talk as much as Annie does.
At some point, it becomes a game: One will talk if the other does. According to Korby Sears, Min's co-conspirator in the Genius Award–winning group Seattle School, the failure of Anarchist Songbook was "the reason Mike left Art." Min opened a salad bar in Georgetown called Evergreens.
One day, worn down from repeated requests, Mike caves. He agrees to meet at Cherry Street Coffee House in Pioneer Square, a subterranean room where he ends up sitting in a wingback chair in front of a fake fire painted on a real fireplace, like a character in a film.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to try so hard to avoid it," he says. He also says, "I think Korby mythologizes a lot of things." But he admits he has steered clear of collaborations since WTOperagate, and adds, "I think I was paralyzed by the size of the things I wanted to do." He'd considered, for instance, opening a restaurant featuring dumplings made in styles from all over the world. It was, alas, too ambitious.
"So I opened a salad restaurant," he says. "We're losing money. The salad business is a bloody business."
Like Annie, Mike is a force (and funny). He's youngish and stylish, wearing glasses that are gleamingly gold and modernist, but he talks directly and with bemusement, like an ancient general. He and Annie will both win you over. That's the end of their similarities. They did not win over one another.
He wanted Anarchist Songbook to be "big and balls-out." She wanted "this impressionistic, surreal hallucination, things coming out of the mist of tear gas, this ghost story of protest." He talks about the Blue Man Group and big-box musicals and movies like Three Kings; he wanted to see Anarchist Songbook at national and international venues. It would be a "love letter to Seattle, while at the same time resonating worldwide," he says.
A great thing about opera is that it can be anything. Think about opera plots: What the hell happens? Everything and nothing— either way works, and sometimes it's both at the same time. Anarchist Songbook had unruly roots all around. Its creators were interested not only in Wagner but also in the modernist American avant-garde composer John Zorn. Cobra, a composition that works like a game with rules that Zorn invented in 1984, was the inspiration for the original group of Seattle composers who worked on Anarchist Songbook. Years before WTOpera was conceived, these composers had weekly gigs playing "Cobra" at I-Spy, the downtown club (it closed New Year's Eve 2002). They called themselves SIL2K, or the Strategic Improvisation Laboratories, and members included Stuart McLeod, Tim Rhodes, Carl Farrow, James Drage, and Robert Henson and Annie Fanning (who are married)—all of whom were at that original WTOpera-spawning barbecue.
It started out as a small production but soon became epic, to fit not only the artists' ambitions but also the scale of the story—international business ground to a halt, a placid West Coast city turned police state.
"I don't know how it came to being operatic," Henson recalls. "Nobody really sits down and writes an opera with a bunch of other writers. And also, opera wasn't really in anybody's skill set, which was kind of desirable. I haven't sat down and written an opera before, and the writers we had participating weren't librettists, so it seemed really ambitious, and it seemed like it was a form that was ripe for exploitation."
Or as Min puts it: "This was an attempt to break something. Artists are—I mean, there's no medium anymore."
Civic pride played no small part. And specifically Seattle pride, the kind with lefty politics and wilderness tendencies and pioneer punch and... process.
"The idea that this would enter the canon without a single author—we thought the show would be about collective power!" Sears says. "Clearly, it was Seattle pride. Like, maybe it would be 'By Seattle.' But then"—he pauses, he furrows his eyebrows, he exhales a huff—"there's that Seattle thing, that West Coast thing, where everybody gets a vote."
The politics that birthed Anarchist Songbook killed Anarchist Songbook.
In months of brainstorming, writing, and rehearsing, the following decisions were never finalized: Would the action be narrative or nonlinear? Would it be a love story, a ghost story, or a series of ministories of onlookers?
"The idea engine functioned very, very well," says Malia Trick, the choreographer who wrote the duet with the female cop and the anarchist. "In the end it began to function too well. We had so much material that we didn't know where we were going next."
When Min describes one version of the plot now, it sounds nuts.
"We worked in some kind of betrayal and a murder," he says, remembering slowly. "There may have been a murder. There was, I think, a spy. There was the naive punk girl, a leader in the bloc who was a spy, and a third guy who liked the girl who liked the leader guy. In the end, there's a guilt thing with the spy, and then I think the other guy finds out, and the girl takes someone out— either in a murdering way or in an accidental death kind of way. So it was like tragedy on tragedy, opera upon opera."
Is he pulling my leg? It is possible, but then again, no.
"I think the important thing was getting it on a worldwide-level audience and then sneaking in the themes of the WTO—like Les Misérables and Fiddler on the Roof," Min says. "They have political themes but with sweet and snappy stuff like love and death. And I think there was some resistance to that, but again, we needed to get going."
On top of everything else, Anarchist Songbook would involve the audience somehow. Details of the audience-participation component were also being ironed out. Would the audience sit within the action? Would the audience be asked, in some way, to take sides?
Noticing the pileup of ideas, Sears threw out some big-picture suggestions. What if, rather than a single production, Anarchist Songbook became a weeklong festival of shows from all of the various perspectives? "I'll take the cops just because I know no one will want it," Sears told the group. It could happen every year, he added. Or what if, instead of that, Seattle artists went to some faraway city— Miami, say—and worked with teenagers, people who weren't even alive during the original riots, to create something entirely new?
"It might have been naive," Yong, the composer of the prologue, says wistfully of the process of creating Anarchist Songbook. "But there was an innocence to the WTO." (Yong is now in the concept phase with local artists to create an Occupy Orchestra. He once performed with the Infernal Noise Brigade; playing cymbals in someone's face, he got punched in the nose. That was his last appearance with them. He has an opera opening at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco next year.)
In the midst of this tornado of material came a deadline: The day in early 2009 when Anarchist Songbook had its hearing in front of ACT directors Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi and Kurt Beattie. It was the kind of hearing that, if it goes well, can launch a production into its life cycle, send it out into the world, bestow its chance to become the next Ring cycle or Les Mis or Cobra, or a mad combination of all three.
Tyrone Brown directed the presentation at ACT. It took place in a second-floor rehearsal room overlooking the very same downtown streets that were choked by the protests in 1999. What the directors saw was a patchwork of songs and dances—including the Chief Sealth prologue "whispered like pigeons carrying secrets," the cop/anarchist duet dance, and the comedic landlord squabble—that added up to about 45 minutes of material. (Rehearsals had been captured on video, so the material is still watchable.)
"It was this great, big idea, and we thought, 'That is terrific!'" Scandiuzzi says. "Because of the economy, we have a tendency to limit ourselves. When somebody comes to you with something of a scope like that, it's refreshing to see them just take a chance and do it!"
Commendable, yes. Supportable, no.
"There were a lot of people in the room," Beattie remembers. "I'm not sure I knew who was a creator and who was a performer, to tell you the truth... There's a statement by Thucydides that goes something like, 'In theory, democracy. In practice, the first citizen.'"
Echoing Beattie, Robert Henson says, "Communal art is not that powerful. It's kind of a funny thing, ultimately, that a communal project for WTO would fail because it was community art."
Can great art be created by committee? Collective groups in music, theater, and visual art attest to the possibility. But it's incredibly difficult, and evidently, being intrinsically faithful to the politics of your subject doesn't necessarily help. (On the flip side, how does that play out in activist organizing? Are leaderless movements better, righter, neither, both? The parallels between the creative process and activist organizing are fascinating to consider.) Another big question raised by Anarchist Songbook: How is artmaking like worldmaking? It's the old conundrum that comes up when a seemingly terrible person writes something wonderful, or when art with universal appeal issues from a tyrant. Anarchist Songbook is a test case in failure—and a reminder that artists are out there working, hard, all the time, even when nobody gets to see what they make. Failures lead places, even if they're just thought experiments for the future.
That was where it all began with Anarchist Songbook, actually, recalls one of the composers, Carl Farrow. He doesn't remember this until very late in a relatively long conversation, and it only drifts back to him by chance, because the artists dropped the idea along the way as they were trying to carry and balance so many ideas.
"That was one of the core things we started out with—failure," Farrow says. "The anarchists failed, the police failed, the protesters failed, and in all senses, to different degrees, it was all about failure. I don't remember who solidified that idea, but I remember sitting at Rob and Annie's house, and someone saying that failure is a linchpin, and that it's intriguing to expose everyone's failure—and I do remember that getting lost pretty quickly. I don't remember who came up with that idea; it's probably one of those things where everyone comes up with it at once. Ironic. I had totally forgotten that."
In December 2009, director Tyrone Brown picked up a few pieces from the scattered debris of Anarchist Songbook. One bit he rescued was the dance duet, scored to a driving, haunting piece of electronic music called "Fall River Mills" (referencing a town in Northern California, not Washington) by a Seattle band called Transpacific, made up of a few of the Anarchist Songbook composers. Brown used the dance in a new WTO-inspired production, presented for two nights (and also captured on video) at—perfectly—the Labor Temple. Brown wasn't satisfied with that version of the piece, but he still wants to make one that will work. He is still chasing the WTO theater dream. He calls his piece The MoveMeant.
Annie Fanning is working on the future of trees in the city of Seattle. She pauses to think back at what she wished they could accomplish with Anarchist Songbook.
"At the heart of hearts, I'm an anarchist," she says. "I'm an anarchist in the way that nurse trees are anarchist. You see the straight lines of trees growing up in the forest now because they grew out of the line of the fallen nurse log. The order has to come from entropy.
"Anarchy is probably not the right term for it anymore. There's two things that get the most press in Seattle, and that's snow and anarchists breaking some windows, but to me, there's nothing coming out of that. My version was to plant seeds in people's minds—that this is who we are as Seattleites, we are activists. And the dialectic is broken. Ideally, you would be able to go through the fog and come out on the other side and say, 'Hey, none of that shit worked.' But there's always the hope that somebody is going to figure it out later."
There are 26 months until the 15th anniversary of WTO.