September 18 – October 10, 2021
The last Stand is an experimental three-act opera that uses field recordings as a libretto and score. A 10-hour epic in which the hero is a white oak, its target audience includes human visitors as well as the grove of trees in Prospect Park where it is housed. It was composed by Kamala Sankaram, known for her experimental work in theater and opera, and the contemporary stories she gives voice to. For example, in Footprint (2014), for which Sankaram wrote the music, she portrayed Mukhtar Mai, a rape victim who became the first woman in Pakistan to bring her rapists to justice, ultimately winning a settlement and becoming a major voice and activist for the womens rights.
In The last Stand, presented by Creative Time, Sankaram explores the history of human exploitation of nature, mapped to the life of a 300-year-old white oak tree in the Black Rock Forest. One year in the life of the tree corresponds to two minutes of composition, so the long duration of the opera, which is still only a nod to a tree. Using only the raw material of the sounds, Sankaram has created a compelling narrative. We hear the forest dwellers communicating through hoots, chirps, and croaks. All of them “speak” in their own voices, and their pitch and timing have been left untouched. Their otherness is amplified as we focus on attentive listening. Some environmental sounds have also been transformed into subsonic vibrations, but none have been translated into instrumental equivalents. Wooden structures positioned around the multi-channel sound system allow visitors to perch or lean back and gaze into the trees, but the structures are quite uncomfortable, sending the message that while we are welcome, we are not. are not privileged in this space. The last Stand is not just focused on the human experience.
In Act One: Youth (1750-1840) an invocation to nature is spoken in the Munsee Lenape language. The words fit comfortably with the sounds of the forest that accompany them. Over time, other human sounds are heard, unmistakably intrusive: footsteps, cannons, sawing and felling of trees followed by the jarring bleating of farm animals and the calls of shepherds. One set of sounds replaces another, like an unnatural succession. In the second act (1840-1970), cowbells and pig grunts dominate. Occasional pauses allow you to hear the birds and trees moving with the wind again. In the 1920s, when Black Rock became a managed forest, farm sounds faded and forest sounds returned, but without wolves or Lenape speakers. In the third act (1970-2050), the sounds of technology become more and more widespread, and birdsong less. Throughout the three acts, a rhythmic chorus of frogs seems to comment on each new development.
We know that trees purify the air and water while providing shelter for a multitude of other species. They help keep the climate stable and prevent erosion. It turns out that they also communicate with each other. Sankaram was inspired by research on tree-to-tree communication initiated by forest ecologist Dr Suzanne Simard. Simard’s conclusions, initially rejected but now widely accepted, revise an earlier view of the forest as being competitive. The forest is now understood as a symbiotic ecosystem where trees, fungi and plants help each other to survive and support a rich biodiversity. The largest and oldest trees, the “mother” trees, nourish regeneration and are linked by complex underground fungal networks. With The last Stand, Sankaram acts on behalf of trees, silently conveying a sense of collaboration and harmony between species. By opening up a space in which the forest can speak for itself, it inspires empathy for the more than human world. The sounds of human intervention throughout the opera are almost uniformly the sounds associated with environmental destruction. We come out wondering if another story, where humans are more integrated into the forest world, is still possible.
The installation of Sankaram takes into account the trees of Prospect Park, including them also as potential listeners. She placed a recording of the white oak moving in the wind next to a maple tree in the grove so that it could feel the vibrations of a tree in a forest. Humans can also feel some of these vibrations: the benches vibrate with the sounds of the forest recorded by Sankaram, at low frequencies. The last Stand encourages the visitor to become more aware of all ambient sounds – sirens, dogs, speaking voices, reverberating music from speakers mounted on passing bicycles – and to incorporate them at any point in the story. This heightened awareness of the soundscape we live in lasts long after stepping away from the benches. Few people will be seated for the entire performance, but that’s not the point. Walk away while The last Stand continues, serves as a powerful reminder that the problems of the Anthropocene are not going to go away just because we don’t pay attention.