Michael Joseph McQuilken, director / Timur & the Dime Museum / Beth Morrison Projects / Opera Philadelphia
Growing up, I always felt like I saw the world differently. I sensed the dark side of things more readily than others and possessed a certain subterranean melancholy. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that I was drawn to heavy metal—and opera—and to the works of artists like Antonin Artaud, William S. Burroughs, and David Lynch.
Black Lodge began with a superficial question about these artists: Did they influence each other’s work? But in the 10 years since I first posed that question, it evolved into something much larger, deeper, and more personal. The process of creating Black Lodge became one not just of accepting the darker parts of myself, but of exploring that darkness—traveling through it in hopes that there would be something beautiful, even transcendent on the other side.
This became frightening at times; I worried I might go too far into these dark places, that like Artaud I might not be able to pull myself out, or that like Burroughs the “ugly spirit” would take hold and something horrible would happen. It seemed that only Lynch had come through his dark engagement unscathed, through spiritual practice—a lesson I marked well.
Both this observation, and clues offered by Anne Waldman’s inspired libretto, helped me weather my own dark journey. I contemplated the Bardo structure we had agreed to incorporate into the work, and its hungry ghosts who sing in lamentation. I became more careful about what I needed to know. I began to strain to see the elusive beauty that adorned the world’s tattered frame.
Indeed, I was seeking something beautiful in Black Lodge, though deep down I still believed Burroughs’ notion that “you have to live in hell to see heaven.” I now see that I had both written myself into and out of that hell. In going through it, I found a new and healthier way of being I didn’t consciously know I was seeking—a resolution the Man in Michael Joseph McQuilken’s artful screenplay is not granted.
It is striking for me to hear now, three years after completing the score, just how much beauty it contains. For all its rock bombast and brooding moods, much of it is soft and still, with floating, plangent melodies that plead for release. “All I want is out of here,” the score concludes; the opera itself mirroring my path in writing it, as I traveled through my own black lodge.
—David T. Little