Music

Seeking Balance: The Ballad of Ishtar

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It’s impossible to fault the extraordinary array of talent in The Ballad of Ishtar. With Beth Fleenor, Trey Gunn, okanomodé, Ivan Arteaga, Jimmie Herrod, Ahamefule J. Oluo, Michaud Savage, and Heather Bentley all conspiring, plus live processing and electronics by William Hayes, all conducted by Wayne Horvitz while the magical Paris Hurley dances throughout–how could anyone say that this is anything other than an all-star ensemble?

It’s also a subject close to my heart. I have nurtured a deep love for Akkadian and Babylonian myth and legend for most of my life, and the story of Ishtar’s descent remains one of the great stories of the ancient Near East. There are plenty of adaptations of Gilgamesh–indeed, virtually all European epic storytelling over the past four millenia comes from that legend–but though Ishtar features in that epic, she is far from its dramatic engine.

Yet for all of that artistry and despite my own emotional connection with the source material, I’m left with very mixed feelings about the opera itself.

It all begins well enough, locating itself right here, right now, on Sunnyside Avenue. The first half is comprised of the most “unnatural” ambient sounds available to the musicians. The signal processing is brittle and harsh. It is, in a word, cacophony, perfect in its representation of the disturbed internal states of the characters. Paris Hurley’s dancing here moves quickly from a mood of passive observation to a series of explosive arm movements, like the goddess clawing the heavens to chant down Babylonia. Held together by only the slenderest threads of melody, the cacophony grows until it cannot grow further, and Ms. Hurley’s movements grow more violent until they cannot be more so. Then the violence of both sight and sound begin not to subside but rather to resign. The descent to hell begins as Ishtar swears off the world and its fuckery and goes to meet her sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the dead, to hide her away from the world.

Of course it’s not that simple. No one, not even a goddess, goes to the Netherworld without something bad occurring. Ishtar passes through seven doors, losing at each one an item associated with her identity: first, her tiara, then earrings, then beads, then breastplate, then birthstones, then bracelets and finally her loincloth. Having stripped Ishtar naked, her sister Ereshkigal then lets loose sixty diseases against her, blinds her, and hangs her from a hook on the wall like a piece of meat.

Where the first half deals with the descent, the second deals with Ishtar’s ascent. After a hearty dose of the 21st Century in the opening half, suddenly the music finds itself back in the 17th Century. The middle section of the second half sounds so much like a modern Dido and Aeneas, all the way down to its ostinato bass, that I had to smile. Where the first half was all cacophony, the second half is all euphony. Once okanomodé’s character appears on the scene with his golden clothes and golden voice, evoking the spirit of Ronnie Isley circa “Voyage to Atlantis,” it’s like walking into the fourth section of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Suddenly everything turns into major chords. The harmonies are complex yet completely tonal. And then after a certain amount of repetition, they are no longer even complex. Everything resolves; conflict disappears. Instruments and voices begin to sing in unison with each other as Ishtar rises from her descent, no longer, according to the libretto, a goddess but still divine.

For me that is exactly its problem. For such a protracted second half of opera, there is no countervailing force. No doubt. No questioning. No drama. Okanomodé’s voice is so voluptuous and overpowering that nothing can resist it–not even a cackling goddess of death with a vendetta against her sister for killing off her husband and leaving her unborn child without a father. It’s perfect casting. Only the structure of the opera is simply not enough to contain that music, which bursts too powerfully from every seam. Musically, I’m okay with the two-part division. It is, after all, a descent mirrored by an ascent. Dramatically, however, it raises the question of quantity contrast. If everything is cacophony, then even a minimal amount of euphony is enough to overwhelm it. Here, there is way too much. Rather than being a gentle light rising brightly over a dark horizon, the music here is more like a supernova, so coruscating that it obliterates all darkness and even the memory of darkness.

For “an electro-acoustic, semi-improvised opera that responds to our world-wide rape culture crisis,” the piece also evinces an undertone of triumphalism. This makes me emotionally skeptical–more so than is my nature. When the subject is grave–and the descent of Ishtar is as grave as it gets–one may well long for hopeful resolution. But hope doesn’t imply ease. The darker implications of the descent of Ishtar are completely missing, and without shadow one cannot see in the light.

In the more ancient Sumerian version of the descent, Ishtar (Inanna) is released only if she can find someone to take her place, and the result is that she sells out her mortal husband for not mourning her sufficiently. To preserve his human essence, her husband’s sister offers to go to hell in his place for half the year, thus giving birth to the season of winter. Moral of the story: the gods screw around with whomever they wish, even destroy their own blood relatives wantonly, and mortals are the ones who bear the suffering–that’s the message of the myth. It is the very essence of cosmic injustice.

Not in this Ishtar. Here the music resolves so warmly, so utterly as to provide the most simple resolution I’ve heard in a musical piece since listening too many Gordon Lightfoot songs turned me into a punk rocker. That kind of earnestness makes me twitch. If everything were that easy, it would already be done. I very much wish to see the end of sexism, patriarchy, exploitation, rape culture, and everything tying those things together, too. But I’m under no illusions that they will go away simply because love saves the day. Love isn’t an ideal fixed state, but rather an often difficult process that involves the surrender of one’s will and one’s ego. That surrender in the opera is, for me, not complete enough. I highly doubt that once Ishtar returns to Uruk that everything is going to be peachy keen. Indeed, I know better.

It’s impossible not to appreciate the incredible artistry on display. Much of it is enthralling. If I had heard both halves of the piece separately from each other, not knowing they were from the same piece, I would have loved the first half–because I love noisy semi-improvised conductions–and I would like the second half, though I’d still find it too much of a good thing. Hearing them together, though, calls undue attention to the fragility of its total structure. It makes me want a stronger overall conception.


Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net