Let's go cautiously. Anyone expecting to discover a theatre piece in Elizabeth Swados's Nightclub Cantata had better take a second look at the title. It is not an opera, not one of the Greek plays Miss Swados is famous for setting, not a revue, not a play. It is a cantata, that quirky form halfway between opera and oratorio, a setting of somewhat dramatic texts that is meant to be sung rather than acted. And it is a cantata meant for performance in a nightclub, where the audience can smoke, drink, and at least whisper during the show, can observe coolly rather than being mobilized in a body to participate vicariously….
Not, of course, a cantata in the normal sense of the word, for Swados does not write "normal" music. Her methods are monodic or responsive chant, recitative, patter-singing, the percussive use of unpitched sounds, intoning in unison or parallel thirds, and the repertory of clicks, shrieks, growls, and wails that we associate with birds, animals, and the tribal languages of Africa and Latin America. Swados is, in short, a neo-primitive—though her "primitivism" has more sophistication than a hundred years of hack composing in the traditional Western musical theatre, a fact that is pointed up by her choice of texts. No primitives here: Delmore Schwartz and Pablo Neruda, Muriel Rukeyser and Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara and Carson McCullers. If not for the wildly different nature of the music, it might be a Ned Rorem...
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