Everyone loves a wedding. There is the familiar ceremony, the rituals that surround it, the rite of passage that some of the gathered guests will look forward to and many others will remember, the journey of someone you love progressing from one stage of life to an exciting new one.
It turns out you don’t need to know the bride, or even the language she is speaking, to be moved by the flurry of emotions contained in a wedding, which is why all are welcome at "Svadba-Wedding," a performance piece by Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company.
Performed in a wedding venue, Best Place Great Hall at the former Pabst Brewery, the experience of "Svadba-Wedding" is profound. After checking in at the registration table, I was escorted to my table by an adorable flower girl dressed all in pink. Centerpieces with flowers, ribbons and foliage adorned each round table and lace-trimmed wedding "programs" helped all the guests follow along with the seven movements of Ana Sokolovic’s a cappella opera.
A tumble of giggles from a dozen young women, each in a knee-length, solid color dress, let us know that the bride and her friends had arrived and were almost ready to start the evening’s revels, preparing Milica (Lydia Rose Eiche) for her big day. Appropriately, the first "notes" of the opera were taps on a wineglass to get the audience’s attention. But instead of giving a toast, six confident vocalists began creating the soundscape that would narrate and underscore the action of the next hour.
Occasionally punctuated with claps, snaps and stomps of feet, the women used their beautifully trained voices to serenade, celebrate and tease the bride as they progressed through traditional Serbian customs — some of which seemed universal and some very specific to that culture. In addition to Serbian poetry and folklore, many sections of the opera contained echoes of traditional sacred music. Conversely, the opera also contains a variety of sounds — not words, but vocalizations that mimic laughter, conversation, gossip and occasional disagreements.
Like watching a foreign language film, there were some passages that needed no explanation. There were some that communicated only a feeling, and some, frankly, where a translation would have been helpful. The opera is normally presented with sub/surtitles, which would have been helpful, not only to track the story more easily but also to appreciate the real poetry embodied in the libretto. But the space did not accommodate projections. Printed English lyrics were available, but in the darkened room, they were difficult to read.
Director Jill Anna Ponasik and choreographer Debra Loewen used the space in the hall well — moving the focal points from the center of the room, to raised stages on each end, and over to the bar along one wall, where the wedding party downed shots to mark the occasion. Dancers wove in and out of tables, scattering and fanning out along the edges of the gathering frequently, giving the performance a truly immersive feel.
Somewhat constrained by the space they had to move in, the six dancers did lots of spinning, playing and pulling each other, encouraging one another to celebrate. Their movements were joyful but also informal, like friends taking to the dance floor at a reception. One gorgeous exception to this was a slow and elegant dance in the fifth movement, when the bride was bathing on her last night as a single woman. Holding candles in each hand, the dancers were ghostly and graceful in great contrast to the ebullient feel of the rest of the piece.
As the bride Milica, Lydia Rose Eiche was not only the center of attention for the entire opera, she was also the only one to have an extended solo during the "Farewell" section, which she handled with aplomb. Her clear, rich voice expressed the melancholy and insecurity of a woman who was about to leave all she has known to start a new life. Her exit from the space, fully adorned in a sparkling dress and enormous veil, was both somber and stunning.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company should be congratulated for this innovative collaboration that paired their respective talents so perfectly, while also getting performances out of traditional theater spaces and meeting their audiences in new contexts.
All my best wishes for the happy couple.