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CAESAR AND THE MANNEQUIN

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In 2020, Alliance for New Music-Theatre invited composer Andrew Earle Simpson as part of its inaugural 20-minute opera commission series of Short Gems. The series was designed to be produced live to respond to artists and their works in The Phillips Collection as part of the Centennial Celebration of America’s First Museum of Modern American Art. The Phillips had been recently-gifted a painting by artist Man Ray, “Shakespearean Equations, Julius Caesar,” which became the subject of this work. In response to the COVID pandemic, we quickly pivoted this original music-theatre work to become one in a digitally-produced series presented on-line as the world went into lockdown.

 

In 2023, the company emerged and re-examined its Short Gems to see if there were works that ‘had legs.’ Lo and behold, the story of a ‘Caesar,’ a character who is determined to cling to power at whatever cost and sings, “You can’t stick me in a closet; I will not stay there,” has already shown the story is prescient and more dangerously relevant today than it was four years ago.

The company re-commissioned Simpson and encouraged him to expand his original idea of the of the artist re-imagined as Wo-Man Ray and a Mannequin, who is revealed as the artist’s model and muse, ‘Kiki.’ With librettist Susan Galbraith and singers Baritone John Boulanger (Caesar) and Mezzo-Soprano Cara Schaefer (Wo-Man Ray), Soprano Danielle McKay (Mannequin) and a trumpeter who is a dead ringer for Harpo Marx, they will re-explore the Dadaist, surreal world of artist Man Ray in the 1920’s—was it really only one-hundred years ago? - Joining the cast will be a mechanical doll who nevertheless stands up to domineering Caesar’s power. Together, they might just blow your minds. Or will they foreshadow the end of another democratic republic?

The full work will receive its world premiere from Sept 9 to 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, as our country careens toward the upcoming election. Stay tuned for details.

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Composer Andrew E. Simpson comments on the work-in progress Caesar and the Mannequin

 Several factors drew me to the work:

  • Ancient Rome (always a great interest: many of my other pieces are inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity, including three operas on Aeschylus’ Oresteia)

  • Politics, particularly American politics and democracy

  • Art in the context of its world: how does it fit? What role does it play?

The piece itself part Baroque opera, part blues, part Spike Jones, part Cabaret.

 

I find so many parts of this story appealing. Themes we explore include the nature of power: political vs. artistic power and fame vs lasting significance or relevance, and the question of duty owed to patronage.

The painting itself provided the impetus for the plot.  The painting looks like a found-object assembly, and foregrounds what looks like a sculptural base without its head.  There is also an upturned table leg and a blackboard in the background with some cryptic expressions and equations.  Two which stick out are 2 + 2 = 22 and the square root of Man Ray.

The parallels with Julius Caesar and our own time are compelling.  Caesar was a lawbreaker – crossing the Rubicon with his own army was actually illegal, though it paved the way for his eventual dictatorship.   We use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to represent a major step or decision in our life, but not everyone knows that the phrase references an illegal act which led to a civil war.  Let’s remember also that Caesar became “dictator for life.”

 

Our first cut of this work happened all prior to January 6. In November, 2023, Robert Kagan wrote a very powerful piece in the Washington Post in which he warned that the country is closer to a dictatorship than ever before.  Kagan even compares Trump to two historical dictators: Napoleon and – Julius Caesar. 

 

The artistic world of the 1920s, not only in film but in visual art, literature, design, was also an inspiration. Man Ray was such an important part of that world, as photographer, filmmaker, creator of the “Ray-o-Graph,” and visual artist. His painting, the starting point for our work, brings together the everyday, the incongruous, and the absurd. 

 

Man Ray was also an artist who delighted in ambiguity; we have taken a cue from that in making the gender of the character indeterminate: Wo-Man Ray is our character’s name.

 

The Mannequin adds the third angle. I took inspiration from Man Ray’s interestingly attired mannequin to the “Street of the Mannequins,” part of the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition. The Mannequin is part of an automaton tradition in the arts, where machine or puppet is mistaken for and desirous of being a “real” boy/girl. Our Mannequin spins out of a closet, where we learn she has been stuck with Caesar, an abusive male figure, for an indeterminate amount of time.

 

They tangle. The show is a triangle – love and otherwise – amongst the three characters.

 

And what is the intrinsic value of art? Can art actually make any kind of difference in the sphere of “real” (i.e., political, military) power?  We believe it can, although whether it is Man Ray or someone else who can do it is open. But the path exists. 

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