Audiences almost always have questions when Squonk Opera gives a performance. But only rarely do you get to ask the questions directly, when the five-person troupe is still on stage.
That's what happened at the Kelly-Strayhorn theater this weekend, as Pittsburgh's veteran muscial phantasmagorians gave a free preview performance of Mayhem and Majesty. The work is set to debut next spring, and Squonk is still working up new material and seeking a workable structure. The performance was broken up into three short acts, during which the Squonkers unleashed their energies ... and then broke for discussion.
Unlike some of their more recent previous efforts -- including 2008's Astro-Rama -- Mayhem and Majesty will not have any explicit narrative arc. Artistic co-director Steve O'Hearn told the audience that scrapping the narrative was about "freeing up ourselves to be ourselves."
But the signatures of a Squonk work remain unchanged: wry humor, striking visuals, inventive props, and of course the music -- which runs the gamut from haunting lullaby to almost-overwhelming cacophony. In fact, the work comes out swinging from the outset, beginning with a full-throated roar. O'Hearn later noted that Squonk usually starts more quietly, to draw audiences in -- and then polled audience members to see if they liked the new approach.
Considering this is a work in progress, the musicianship was tight: Keyboardist (and co-director) Jackie Dempsey had a driving duet with percussionist Kevin Kornicki that felt like a Russian folk dance on meth; O'Hearn and guitarist David Wallace both performed howling solos lushly backed up by the rest of the band.
And while the set was sparser than in previous full-blown productions, there was still plenty to look at. Among the highlights: motorized umbrellas opening and shutting like flowers, and vocalist Autumn Ayers surrounded by microphones that circled her like fireflies. Meanwhile, a bit of shadow-play -- silhouettes of Ayers using a gramophone horn with O'Hearn playing a clarinet behind her -- was so captivating that an audience member suggested using it in Squonk merchandise.
"I would wear that T-shirt," the Squonkers were told.
More than 100 people attended the Saturday night performance, and they were enthusiastic about the new work, although a spirited discussion about the lyrics ensued.
Autumn Ayers' voice is perhaps the one instrument audience members remember most: It's one thing to see instruments navigate the varied terrain of a Squonk Opera performance, but it's hard to imagine so much range and power packed into one human frame. Yet audience members noted that the lyrics were almost impossible to hear, lost as they often were in the maelstrom unfolding on stage.
Squonkers argued that the point is that Ayers' voice is an instrument: that she backs the rest of the band as much as the other way around. Besides, they pointed out, hearing the lyrics might not help that much: Ayers gave a spoken-word performance of one song to illustrate that the lyrics fall somewhere between beat poetry and scat-singing. (In another song, the only lyrics I could make out involved repeated use of the texting acronyms LMAO and LOL.)
Squonk Opera, in other words, doesn't feel particularly obliged to "make sense." And if you can let go of the idea that they should, you'll probably have a good time.
In fact, the visuals which pleased the audience -- a giant face whose features were each projected on separate screens was a favorite -- also confounded it. One young enthusiast wanted to know "what possessed you" to project video footage of squirming microorganisms during one set.
"I just like the way mosquito larvae move," lead video designer Buzz Miller explained."Who doesn't?" O'Hearn asked.