By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Oct 31, 2019 at 10:31 AM

When you walk into Calvary Presbyterian Church for Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s latest musical event, "Utterance," you feel immediately like you are coming into a sacred space.

Yes, the spires of the big red church have been gracing Milwaukee’s Downtown for almost 150 years, and the building’s interior features breathtaking leaded glass windows, intricately carved buttresses of dark wood and a barely visible labyrinth painted on the floor, modeled after a 12th century example in a French cathedral. But more than that, you feel like you’ve arrived for a holy rite — a gorgeous ceremony that is part ancient, part modern, part religious and part mystical. 

A fine mist hangs in the air. Lighting instruments from all sides focus on the center of the circular labyrinth, and the audience is seated around it in more concentric circles, expectant and open. (Ethereal lighting design by Jason Fassl that both illuminates the story and casts amazing, sharp shadows on the church walls.) Then the music starts from the exquisite ten-member, early music ensemble APERI ANIMAM. Holy chords emerge, breathy, delicate and perfectly in sync, like notes from a finely tuned organ. 

Accompanied only sporadically by the badass cello (Alicia Storin) and flute (Emma Koi) of Cadance Collective, a modern dance and music ensemble, a strong visual element is added through evocative choreography by their third member, Christal Wagner. At the intersection of the historic church, a series of 16th century religious motets by Dutch composer Orlande de Lassus, the frayed edges of a punk aesthetic worn defiantly by the ensemble and the premiere of the specially commissioned opera "Eternal Burning" – composed by UWM Peck School of the Arts music faculty member Amanda Schoofs – "Utterance" is a singularly unique musical, kinetic, theatrical and spiritual experience. Taken together, the 90-minute evening is as beautiful and fascinating as it is startling and mystifying. 

The text of the performance alternates between ancient prophecies and modern revelations. Short, intensely emotional passages of Lassus’s "Prophetiae sibyllarum" are sung in Latin, detailing the ancient premonition of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, "he who comes from the highest light and truth and who shall bring peace to the world." Schoofs’s "Eternal Burning" is composed of similar bursts of musical poetry that explore "the identity altering phenomenon of pregnancy and birth." 

The Renaissance-era liturgical music is APERI ANIMAM’s sweet spot — it’s what they do. Positioned in a circle facing inwards, the vocalists are hyper-attuned to each other, both musically and physically, their tones blending so well that it’s hard to pick out individual voices, even when the artists are positioned directly in front of you. Dressed in mismatched black outfits, trimmed with raw edged and ragged white fabric panels, there is a subversive edge to the group. Dark wedges of eyeliner, metal studs, ripped knees in black jeans and fishnet stockings punctuate each singer’s look, finished with bare feet. 

As good as they are at the silky, harmonious sacred music, the group seems to relish the opportunity to push boundaries in the modern sequences. Deliberately dissonant tones mixed with whispered passages. Sensual choreography was interspersed with variations on the performance circle. A mysterious character was unleashed in interludes featuring Wagner — dressed in the inverse of the group, white with black trim. Like a loose-jointed puppet, she filled the space with unpredictable and exciting movement, interacting with the trinity that Schoofs envisions within each woman: Xai (Provocateur), Elizabeth Smith (Volition) and Jackie Willis (Ancient Knowing).

Directed by Danny Brylow, "Utterance" is utterly innovative collaboration at its best, seamlessly moving between canonical and commissioned work, allowing artists to explore both old and new forms of expression, with old and new thoughts around the theme of a prophesied arrival.