A brilliant new music theatre piece exposes a culture's hubris
Swinging on the rigging of his three-hulled trimaran as he sets off on his solo race around the world, Richard Ravenshead crows with delight at his own daring. But by the end of Ravenshead, the new music theatre piece by composer Steve Mackey and librettist/singer Rinde Eckert, the sailor is delirious, having lied about everything and conquered nothing. In globe-trotting musical idioms that bounce from baroque to calypso, Afro-pop to gamelan cross rhythms, Ravenshead tells the story of this poignant reversal, turning the voyage into an exploration of machismo in a modern, antiheroic world. The production, which stars the versatile tenor Eckert in a solo performance, opens in March at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre, following last fall's short run at Pennsylvania State University and New York's Miller Theatre at Columbia University.
Three years in the making, this wickedly insightful piece derives from a real incident: the 1968 attempt of Donald Crowhurst, a British electronics manufacturer, to sail around the world without stepping off his boat. Crowhurst had hoped to win the solo race in order to publicize a navigation device created by his company, but his project foundered, due to his grandiose ideas of his own capacity and the hasty outfitting of the boat. In the opera, Ravenshead's mind falls apart in tempo with the vessel. He begins faking his logbooks and misreporting his positions, so that people will think he's traveled around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, although in reality he has never left the South Atlantic. And after months at sea alone, he starts to believe his own deceptions.
Mackey's music (which is accessible in spite of its sophisticated technique) illustrates Ravenshead's mental deterioration with an increasingly dense mix of instruments and rhythms. At the same time, this eclectic score reflects the sailor's external world, often allowing the audience a sort of auditory travel. For instance, when Ravenshead sails through the Caribbean, he blows a tune on his harmonica over a calypso steel drum theme. With its bizarre scales and funny oompah brass, this "Bare Raft" jig is tuneful, danceable and almost - yet not quite - calypso. This kind of ambiguous reference to the music of other lands (reminiscent of other Mackey pieces, like "Indigenous Instruments") is what the composer terms a "harmonic port of call" - a musical idiom that borrows sounds from another culture and filters them through the Western ear.
In addition to its musical voyaging, Ravenshead reflects on some universal dilemmas - mind versus body, man versus nature. For example, mimicking the form of a baroque rage aria, Eckert and Mackey wittily set a passage about an unreliable generator as a tour de force in which the singer's squeaky falsetto alternates with a manly growl. "The sea was banging like an infernal machine, but my generator was serene, content, composed, useless," Ravenshead complains, over the relentlessly marching beat of timpani and a wailing synthesized bagpipe. At this point in the production, the bald and powerfully built Eckert curses and, brandishing a monkey wrench and prancing about the deck in a greasy …