To say that you’ll never think of Lot’s wife the same way after seeing Maya Beiser’s “Elsewhere,” a new “cello opera” that recently played at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, would be a gross understatement. In the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife has no name — let alone speaking lines — and is primarily an example of the fate that awaits those who disobey divine instruction: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
In “Elsewhere,” Lot’s wife finds fine physical form in the magnificent, statuesque body of actress Helga Davis; chats across time through what Beiser calls an “imaginary ‘Skype’” with another woman facing her own apocalypse, and describes the way her morning cereal caught in her throat on the day she was forced from the home where she’d raised two daughters.
This stunning portrait of a reimagined biblical anti-heroine comes in the third and final segment of a 70-minute multimedia work that Beiser describes in her artist statement as “bearing witness” to the “particular suffering endured by women throughout the millennia and across the world.” Created with Robert Woodruff, who directs the piece, the collaborative project also counts among its notable contributors several prominent women artists, including composers Eve Beglarian and Missy Mazzoli, choreographer Brook Notary and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson.
Yet the most powerful voice in the production is unquestionably that of Beiser’s cello, which is every bit as expressive as a human voice but also does what a singer cannot — gliding effortlessly across four octaves, playing lush counterpoint and ethereal chords and, with the help of electronic effects like reverb and distortion, producing a host of unsettling otherworldly sounds. The success of the “cello opera” concept depends on the ability of a seated cellist, half hidden behind a bulky instrument, to enthrall in the manner of an elegantly costumed, angel-voiced diva striding out to center stage, and Beiser rises to the challenge. Even with dancers flitting about her, one’s eyes are drawn to her own graceful movement as music seems to well up out of her body. (Flowing chestnut hair to frame striking angular features and piercing blue eyes doesn’t hurt, either.) The New Yorker got it right when the magazine labeled the Israeli-born classical-music rebel a “cello goddess.”