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The study of anatomy in the 18th century involved a strange obsession with an idealized female body, even when her guts were splayed open. The “Anatomical Venus” wax beauties, such as those sculpted by Clemente Susini, tossed their delicately feminine heads back in serene repose while their innards were bared; French artist Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty illustrated, among his anatomical studies, a woman with her back revealed from the neck down, her muscles ripped open into angelic wings.
In Anatomy Theater, currently playing at BRIC House in Brooklyn as part of the Prototype Festival, a woman’s exposed body is the center of an opera based on 18th-century public dissections. Except she is far from the virginal maidens of Susini’s models, and she has a voice, until it is silenced by her execution for the murder of her husband and two children. That her husband was her pimp and beat her does not forgive her guilt. One by one her organs are lifted from her chest, as the anatomists search for visible evidence of her moral corruption.
The opera, composed by David Lang with scenic design by artist Mark Dion, debuted last year at REDCAT gallery in the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The performers, especially Peabody Southwell as the murderess Sarah Osborne, are strong in embodying the gray areas of morality around this visceral punishment. The orchestra’s cacophonous use of bass clarinet and horns perfectly matches the performers’ enunciations, who move amidst Dion’s cabinet of specimens and medical tools like the needle, bone saw, and sponge (which get their own listing song). Eerie videos of medical imagery by Bill Morrison add a layer of unease, projected on a screen that sometimes masks the stage.
Yet Anatomy Theater never quite reaches an emotional peak, or consistent tone, ranging from necrophiliac humor (given a mad frenzy by Marc Kudisch as the anatomical theater ringmaster Joshua Crouch) to Southwell’s yearning aria of resurrection for her lost heart. It may have been opening night kinks, but Saturday’s performance had a curious temper shift from the audience enjoying complementary beer and sausages in the lobby (the twist being that, upon entering, you were partying at an execution), to the disorder of finding a seat while Osborne waited patiently on stage with the hangman. This may have worked more successfully in LA, as the scaffold was out in the lobby, from which the audience entered a theater to discover her body already on the dissecting table.
Spoiler alert: the anatomist Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strange (the tenor Timur) find nary a 666 on her uterus, nor a devil’s claw on her heart. Oddly after all the preamble about this hunt for evil, and a final song contemplating “what is evil,” the audience is basically told “better luck next dissection!” At 75 minutes, the opera is compact, which may be why it doesn’t go deeper on issues with contemporary resonance like science and faith, or religion as a tool of bodily control. Recently, in one act, Lang’s The Loser opera at the neighboring Brooklyn Academy of Music sustained dramatic tension with only one man on a suspended platform singing of his failed piano career.
Nevertheless, Anatomy Theater is an example of how Prototype Festival continues to support experimental ideas in the operatic form, and is a reminder of all those people whose agency over the fate of their own bodies was lost to those with greater power.
Anatomy Theater continues at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through January 14.