Composer Anthony Gatto releases "Wise Blood," his operatic setting of Flannery O'Connor's wild, Southern Gothic novel about a crisis of faith in a young war veteran. The pace and syntax of “preachers with microphones” colors much of Gatto's text setting in this tale of spiritual mayhem and murder. While the accompanying brass orchestra evokes the New Orleans-style, second-line music traditions, the opera draws upon many styles and techniques for delineating its menagerie of characters. Enhanced by studio and Foley techniques, “Wise Blood’’ is a glitch opera drenched in the blood of the Christ-haunted South.
|Scene 1: On the Train, Inside the Sleeping Berth
Scene 1: On the Train, Inside the Sleeping Berth
|Scene 2: Taulkinham
Scene 2: Taulkinham
|Scene 2: Help a blind preacher
Scene 2: Help a blind preacher
|Scene 2: I smell the sin on your breath
Scene 2: I smell the sin on your breath
|Scene 2: I come a long way
Scene 2: I come a long way
|Scene 2: Sabbath Lily tells a story
Scene 2: Sabbath Lily tells a story
|Scene 3: Haze preaches The Church Without Christ
Scene 3: Haze preaches The Church Without Christ
|1st Interlude Enoch Emery
1st Interlude Enoch Emery
|Scene 4: Haze rents at Mrs. Flood’s Boarding House
Scene 4: Haze rents at Mrs. Flood’s Boarding House
|Scene 4: Sabbath Lily 1st song Babe I never saw
Scene 4: Sabbath Lily 1st song Babe I never saw
|2nd Enoch Emery Interlude
2nd Enoch Emery Interlude
|Scene 5: The Church Without Christ needs a new jesus
Scene 5: The Church Without Christ needs a new jesus
|Scene 6: Onnie Jay Holy
Scene 6: Onnie Jay Holy
|Scene 8: Haze lights a match
Scene 8: Haze lights a match
|3rd Enoch Emery Interlude
3rd Enoch Emery Interlude
|Scene 9: Where you come from is gone
Scene 9: Where you come from is gone
|Scene 10: Sabbath Lily 2nd song I knew when I first seen you
Scene 10: Sabbath Lily 2nd song I knew when I first seen you
|Scene 10: Onnie Jay Holy presents The True Prophet, Enoch Emery steals a gorilla suit
Scene 10: Onnie Jay Holy presents The True Prophet, Enoch Emery steals a gorilla suit
|Scene 11: The murder of Solace Layfield
Scene 11: The murder of Solace Layfield
|Scene 12: Hazel Motes blinds himself
Scene 12: Hazel Motes blinds himself
|Scene 12: Mrs. Flood proposes
Scene 12: Mrs. Flood proposes
‘Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.’ (O'Connor)
The young shattered war veteran Hazel Motes shouts these words from the hood of his car in Wise Blood. America as a "nation of immigrants" shares his sermon as its origin story—or otherwise had it forced on them along the way. Haze may as well also be addressing: the reckoning of America's racist history, its terrorism, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, the genocide of America’s indigenous people, and more recently, climate change, pandemic change, Oxycontin, the militarization of police, the White House flouting the rule of law... “Where you come from is gone” sermonizes on the ways of lost nations and their lost mythologies, and also, the future lost innocence of every child who bears this legacy of being an American.”– Anthony Gatto
Wise Blood’s plot unfolds with forward motion, as we follow the story of traumatized soldier Hazel Motes upon his return to a transformed hometown in Tennessee. The musical setting in Wise Blood often provides introspective support to Motes’ unfolding story of coming to terms with what has been transformed, personally and communally, since going off to war. Influences of gospel, traditional spirituals, music theatre, brass fanfares, and studio produced pop songs shape a score that tackles the trajectory of loss of self, identity, and cultural connection.
Engineer: Reid Kruger
Design and Layout: Marc J. Wolf
An opera based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor music and libretto by Anthony Gatto
© 1949 by Flannery O'Connor; copyright renewed 1976 by Regina Cline O'Connor.
Permission granted by the Mary Flannery O'Connor Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Anthony Gatto has developed a diverse body of music, often informed by literary and visual arts, exploring alternative narrative modes and structures. His cross-media works include the music and libretto for Wise Blood, after the novel Flannery O'Connor. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Wise Blood (2015) presents the shattered war veteran Hazel Motes preaching the Church Without Christ from the hood of his car. Also commissioned by the Walker Art Center, his opera The Making of Americans (2008), based on the novel by Gertrude Stein, presents Stein's spectacular, universalist language celebrating generations of American families.
Anthony studied music privately with Ornette Coleman in the 80s, later founding The Festival Dancing in Your Head, dedicated to his music and influences. He completed a doctorate in composition at the Yale School of Music in 2001, and has received fellowships and awards from the Fulbright Scholar Program (Berlin), New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Meet the Composer, Inc, an ASCAP Grant to Young Composers; residency fellowships at Yaddo, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Aaron Copland House, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Willapa Bay Artist-in-Residence program. He is an Associate Professor of Music at City University of New York.
But classical music of the contemporary kind is where I want to start, with two related CDs from composer Anthony Gatto on the New Focus Recordings label, The Making of Americans and Wise Blood, the former from Gertrude Stein’s writing and the latter from Flannery O’Connor’s. These are excellent new operas with a multimedia quality—all sound, but instead of trying to replace a staged or concert opera performance, these pieces were made for the recording medium. They use spatial design, multiple production techniques, samples of spoken word (including Stein) and other non-musical audio. The voices are positioned at different heights and depths in the stereo field and that delivers a greater feeling of dialogue than usually heard in opera recordings. Gatto is also skillful with all sorts of musical styles, like a great soundtrack composer, and the music not only moves easily through minimalism, rock, gospel, and brass pieces, but represents and underscores character in exactly the way that makes opera different from musical theater. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the characters and how the music itself can sustain and develop the drama.
— George Grella, 12.15.2020
Narrative music needn’t be conventionally staged to be effective. The earliest radio dramas, including such musically extended ones as Hindemith’s Sabinchen, predate musique concrète by a good two decades, initiating a lineage taken up spectacularly by Anthony Gatto in these two works, which were conceived as a kind of installation (in the case of Wise Blood, premiered as such in 2015 at the Walker Art Center) and as a stage work later converted into a radio opera (in the case of The Making of Americans).
Wise Blood is adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, whose action begins on a train with a number of flash-forwards, then settles into a small, post-WW2 Tennessee town whose demons are many and easily roused. Gotto uses a mix of spoken and sung texts to represent the web of dysfunctional relationships—kind of a hyper-personalized, non-linear concept of music theater that owes more to Einstein on the Beach than to conventional opera. The Making of Americans, presented here in its later form as a fixed-media piece, is based on Gertrude Stein’s modernist novel, and features contributions from Zeitgeist, the JACK String Quartet, several vocal soloists, and the recorded voice of Stein herself.
— Michael Schell, 1.02.2021
Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Thus Flannery O'Connor, whose searing, disturbing fiction marks her as one of the most remarkable figures in American literature, and whose theological and ethical insights, handed out freely in her fiction with the soul-shattering intensity of an Old Testament prophet, make her fiction one of the most successful integrations of a profound Catholic faith into popular culture of any evangelist. The dark humor, violence, and the skewering gaze she turns on her warped, flawed characters form a style once encountered, never forgotten. Wise Blood was her first novel, the tale of Haze, a bitter, furious atheist whose crisis of faith leads him to found a "Church Without Jesus"; he falls in with a supposedly blind street preacher and his morally bankrupt daughter, a disturbed young man who believes he has "wise blood" which enables him to discern spiritual matters without guidance and who is caught up in the blasphemous anti-church, and various other deluded or unsavory characters. A mummified dwarf is stolen from a museum, there are murders, a blinding, a gorilla costume, and the unexpected redemption of a relatively minor character. O'Connor described the book as being about "freedom, free will, life and death, and the inevitability of belief." Gatto astutely sets this provocative theatre of bizarrerie as a kind of radio opera, presented live as an immersive multimedia installation, which this recording, with its electronic effects and studio production techniques, emulates. The strangeness of O'Connor's narrative, its overlapping, intertwining, contradictory meanings, actions and consequences are thus presented more accurately than any conventional operatic telling could achieve. Paragraphs of O'Connor's matchless descriptive prose are woven into the libretto, to powerful effect. The result is accessible, as O'Connor's writing is accessible, the better to draw the audience into the unsettling narrative; musically Gatto draws on parodies of Southern church music, the exaggerated faux-ecstatic style of evangelical preaching, a post-modern mixture of tonal orchestral music from the brass-heavy wind ensemble and sonoristic modernism, and some moving arias accompanied by rich brass sonorities. The result is as apt an adaptation of the novel as we are ever likely to hear; almost as disturbing and shockingly revelatory, indeed, as reading the book.
— David Bloom, 8.15.2020
In which we find not all American arts council money is squandered in the name of log rolling and wire pulling. A modern opera based on a Flannery O’Connor novel is a theatrical sized presentation that is large enough to keep your attention throughout. Whether music fan or theater fan, this engaging work is a high water mark for thinking people on the prowl for some juicy and meaty entertainment and made for more than munching pop corn to. And now, you can enjoy literary classics in a whole new way.
— Chris Spector, 8.25.2020
The genre of Southern Gothic writing claimed William Faulkner as a resident genius from the 1930s onward, but Flannery O’Connor had her own uniqueness, emerging as a stylist of unforgettably haunted, eerie, tormented prose. Her first novel, Wise Blood, from 1952, is an allegory of religious fanaticism in rural Tennessee, a theme that twists from the grotesque and surreal to an ambiguous transcendence—the tortured G.I. hero, Hazel (“Haze”) Motes, blinds himself at the end, then dies from police brutality. As his landlady Mrs. Flood looks into the dead sockets of his eyes, she thinks she sees a light emanating inside them.
Gory, grimly comic, and religiously bizarre—the characters include Asa Hawks, a wandering preacher pretending to be blind, while Motes starts his own sect, The Church Without Christ—Wise Blood has attracted a sizable cult. New York composer Anthony Gatto fed it with his hour-long opera from 2015, for which he wrote both the music and libretto. Although there is no notation in the booklet to indicate the date and venue of this new release, it comes from the original run of the opera at the Soap Factory facility in Minneapolis in May/June 2015.
The audio version of the opera, “enhanced by studio and Foley techniques,” according to the website of the New Focus label, comes across as a sound-and-music collage. The track listing is titled with prominent lines from the libretto, which Gatto excerpted from O’Connor’s novel, but there is so much doctoring of voices that I was hard-pressed to understand more than a quarter of what is sung and narrated. I found it essential to watch a YouTube video (search “wise blood highlight reel”), which conveys the immersive quality of the actual event.
Wise Blood took place in a large space on one level, with sets by contemporary artist Chris Larson. Many of these are surreal rooms turned on their sides, so that the viewer looks in as if from the ceiling. The small audience, restricted to no more than 100, followed the singers around the space as the plot unfolded. Most of the instrumental part consisted of a traveling brass band in the style of a tent revival or New Orleans Mardi Gras. The vocal performers, who were largely opera singers but also included other styles, used hand-held microphones. Immersive theater has been around for at least half a century, but this is my first experience of hearing it applied to opera.
The setup isn’t very clear when described in words, but the YouTube video, along with photos offered online and sample tracks at the New Focus website, portray the live experience vividly. The included libretto, which is only partial, makes it possible to follow the action; the overlapping voices, which sometimes create a cacophony, are necessary in the collage effect. But the effort at intelligibility is well worth it, because Gatto, even without Larson’s remarkable settings, has done justice to O’Connor’s bleak ethos. Her allegory is of a rootless postwar America where comforting no- tions of home and faith have been ravaged. (A sample of her prose: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”)
Gatto has a sophisticated literary sense—elsewhere I review his Gertrude Stein radio opera, The Making of Americans—which he unites with a wide range of musical styles tilting towards Americana, from horror-movie music to revivalist hymn chorales. The performers are skilled as both singers and actors, giving the impression of a gripping radio drama. Special praise goes to tenor Martin Bakari as Haze, baritone Brian Major’s charismatic Asa Hawks, and the smoky vocals of Gelsey Bell as Mrs. Flood. Two tracks use a small ensemble of saxophones and brass, but the main instrumental group is the Adam Meckler Orchestra, which constitutes the excellent brass band that becomes a traveling soundtrack. Candor compels me to say that this opera-drama-installation is a hard listen except for devotees of modern mixed media, but the underlying fascination of O’Connor’s writing and Gatto’s imaginative recreation makes for an absorbing experience. Adventurous ears will rejoice.
— Huntley Dent, 11.15.2020
Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is one of my favorite novels, and when I saw that it had been made into an opera, I knew that I would have to investigate. I was not disappointed. The setting is the city of Taulkinham, Tennessee, and the time is after World War II. All of the characters are either damaged or grifters. Hazel Motes, recently discharged from the military, comes to Taulkinham on a train and, reacting to the dishonest example set by “blind preacher” Asa Hawks and his daughter Sabbath Lily, forms the “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” His incoherent sidewalk preaching attracts other grifters, and also the attention of the desperately lonely 18-year- old Enoch Emery, whose “wise blood” is a sixth sense that makes him act impulsively. One of his impulsive acts is to steal, from a local museum, a mummified dwarf that he believes to be the new Jesus in Motes’s church. At the end of the novel, Motes has blinded himself and is brought back to his landlady, Mrs. Flood. Suddenly finding love in her heart, she proposes marriage, not realizing that he has died in the meantime. Wise Blood is a Southern Gothic classic—pitiful, grotesque, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Before listening to this CD, I discovered, on composer Anthony Gatto’s website, a video of the complete “opera exhibition” as it was performed in 2015 in Minneapolis’s (now defunct) Soap Factory, a warehouse-like arts space. The performance occurs not in front of the audience but among them, and the video is an excellent document of what the audience experienced—or at least it seems to be, because (unfortunately) I was not there. The video is visceral and entertaining. I sat down just to get a taste of it, but once I got started I could not tear myself away. Ninety-two minutes later, my first reaction was “Wow!”
This CD, although the cast is the same, is not a live recording or an attempt to duplicate exactly what the Minneapolis audience heard. Instead, it is an attempt to present Gatto’s opera as an audio-only experience for home listeners. The score has been condensed by about 12 minutes, and the resources of a recording studio have been used to make up for what can no longer be seen. It is only partly successful, but perhaps that is stating the obvious, based on what I already have told you.
Having seen the video first, I understand the concept. Had I not seen the video, I think I would have been confused or at least underwhelmed. This is partly because Gatto’s score is very effective, in the context of an actual performance, but I am not sure that it stands on its own. More musical theater than operatic (although the roles require operatic voices), Gatto’s music is a fever dream of gospel hymns and Salvation Army bands. It supports O’Connor’s words and characters with great aptness, but I don’t think it would hold my interest without those words and characters. There are a couple of extended solo passages (Motes’s sermons, the first appearance of Onnie Jay Holy), but it would take some imagination to refer to them as arias. To be clear, I think Gatto’s Wise Blood is terrific, and he has completely succeeded in doing what (I think) he set out to do. It is not a “numbers opera” or a Broadway tune-fest, however, and to appreciate this CD, I think it is necessary to have seen the opera first, either live or on video. Even better, read the novel (or see John Huston’s film version from 1979), then watch the video on Gatto’s website, and then purchase the CD. I am sure Gatto and the performers would appreciate that!
Gatto, born in 1962, is a well-established composer who founded The Festival Dancing In Your Head, dedicated to the work of free jazz great Ornette Coleman. He knows his business. He actually outdoes O’Connor in making more explicit the idea that Wise Blood is also a work about finding home and connection. He does this by opening and closing the opera with a brass chorale that accompanies the same singer (but in two different roles—first Mrs. Hitchcock and then Mrs. Flood) singing similar material and expressing similar thoughts. This device brings Wise Blood full circle most effectively.
The Adam Meckler Orchestra is a large and very capable wind ensemble. As both singers and actors, the cast is terrific. Psychologically and musically, the material is difficult, but they enter into their characters fully and are never less than completely convincing. Standouts include Brian Major’s rich baritone, used to excellent effect in the role of Asa Hawks, and some gorgeous singing, at the top of her register, from Gelsey Bell as Mrs. Hitchcock and Mrs. Flood. Holly Hansen finds both the vulnerability and the calculation in Sabbath Lily, and almost convinces us that she is 15 years old! Countertenor David Echelard’s Onnie Jay Holy is a trip. As Hazel Motes, tenor David Bakari presents Motes’s character more aggressively than I had envisioned it previously, but his nuanced performance makes it work. I can’t give this a general recommendation, but if you are willing to do the homework, this CD of Wise Blood has plenty to offer.
— Raymond Tuttle, 11.15.2020