The notion of a cultural kinship between the phenomena of serious opera and television talkshow may not readily occur to the dedicated operaphile or couch potato; yet the considerable and delightful triumph of Mikel Rouse’s “Dennis Cleveland” is in the cementing of just such a relationship. Originally produced and greatly acclaimed — in 1996 at the Kitchen, lower Manhattan’s shrine to the far-beyond — “Cleveland” arrives this week as one of several enterprises in “Eclectic Orange,” an arts festival that (for the time being, at least) has transformed traditionally cautious Orange County into a hotbed of arts exploration.
Designer John Jesurun has, indeed, converted Costa Mesa’s small Founders Hall into a believable TV studio, festooned with monitors and logos, in which talkshow host Dennis Cleveland (Mikel Rouse) welcomes four couples of lovelorn misfits and sets them to bickering among themselves in a dense, explosive counterpoint. Cleveland, meanwhile, moseys through the audience, among whom are cast members, cued to throw further aspersions on the guests onstage and, in the process, to spill some of their guts into the studio monitors and out to the presumed-spellbound nationwide audience.
The 42-year-old, Missouri-born Rouse has been a fixture in New York’s experimental-music scene through such previous ventures as his “Mikel Rouse’s Broken Consort,” a multimedia combo, and his rock band Tirez Tirez. For “Cleveland” he has concocted a throbbing, bubbling underpinning of hip-hop, against which his cast members, talented acrobats all both bodily and verbally, battle in wildly veering rap-style “arias.” One of the planted audience members, Japanese performance artist Ryuji Noda, communicates not with words but with his harmonica, a nice musical touch.
“Cleveland” is actually the centerpiece of an operatic trilogy planned by Rouse as a personal (and mostly devastating) statement on the tyranny of the media. The first, “Failing Kansas” was a monologue for Rouse himself, against a taped words-and-music collage, on the Kansas murder and retribution detailed in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” The third, “The End of Cinematics,” slated for the Brooklyn Academy’s “Next Wave” in 2001, sets the diverse actions onto screens in a movie multiplex.
This season’s “Eclectic Orange” playbill has offered such diverse elements as Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” blended into Leonard Bernstein’s video lecture on that work, visiting orchestras from Moscow and Washington, a bluegrass/classical mix titled “Short Trip Home,” an evening of theater melding Canadian and Italian talent into a pageant on nothing less than the history of mankind and still due, on Nov. 16, a first local visit from Les Arts Florissants, the hot-ticket Paris-based Baroque-opera troupe. The event’s sponsors, with media artist and impresario Dean Corey as spark plug, have their eye on Brooklyn’s multifaceted and greatly successful festival as inspiration; so far, so good.