It sounds like the opening line of a joke: A cellist, a tattoo artist and a dramaturge meet in a bar. … Though a bar was not the scene, the group of artists collaborating on concert:nova’s world premiere production of “The Bradbury Tattoos, a Rock Opera” is a wildly disparate group.
Michael Burnham, director/dramaturge and emeritus professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, recalls how it all began at a lunch at Café DeSales, not far from Burnham’s home, with Ted Nelson, a longtime cellist for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
“I have this bizarre respect for Ted,” Burnham said. “Ted is a martial artist and a cellist and – well, that’s not a combination you see every day.”
Nelson had two books sitting on the table – Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.”
“Ted slid the Kipling off the table and asked me if I thought it might be possible to turn the Bradbury into a libretto,” recalled Burnham.
Nelson is married to Ixi Chen, a clarinetist with the CSO and founder of concert:nova, a group committed to delving into chamber music’s less explored corners. Concert:nova prides itself on staging performances that are as out of the ordinary as they are challenging. And before long, this chatty lunch meeting would lead to another one.
It turned out Burnham wasn’t the only one Nelson approached about a Bradbury opera. He had a composer in mind, too – Zac Greenberg, someone whose adventurous spirit he thought would mesh well with Burnham’s freewheeling approach to theater.
Together, Burnham and Greenberg created “The Bradbury Tattoos, A Rock Opera.” It will be performed July 13 and 22 in Memorial Hall. If you’re a Bradbury aficionado, you’ve probably guessed the work is based on “The Illustrated Man.”
Published in 1951, it’s a respected piece of the Bradbury oeuvre. But it’s a collection of 18 unrelated short stories rather than deeper, more complex works like “The Martian Chronicles” or “Fahrenheit 451.”
As a way of providing thread to connect the stories, Bradbury invented a heavily tattooed character whose magical body illustrations – created by a mysterious time traveler – could animate themselves to share their stories in more depth.
“I’d call it an obscure piece of Americana,” said Greenberg. He’s not discounting the work. Indeed, like Burnham, he is a huge fan of Bradbury’s writing, but “The Illustrated Man” is, he said, an uneven collection.
So the first order of business was to whittle the collection down to four stories on which to base the opera. They ended up with “The Highway,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Zero Hour” and “The Last Night of the World.”
Since the original work had no major thematic connection, Greenberg felt no compunction to give his music any sort of stylistic through line.
“One of the movements is centered around this folk fingerpicking thing,” said Greenberg. “One has a Mingus Big Band sound. Another sounds like some Ligeti ‘2001’ space-like thing.”
Stylistically speaking, “The Bradbury Tattoos” is unapologetically all over the place.
“To me, music is music,” said Greenberg. “All that genres stuff has never made much of an impact on me.”
So when he set out to create the music, he approached it the way he might if he were scoring a film. In a traditional opera, a composer probably would be thinking about recurring musical themes and building in clear musical relationships among the various scenes and characters.
However, Greenberg is a huge fan of creating musical soundscapes. If you saw and heard the installation at the Freedom Center during 2017’s “Blink,” you heard Greenberg’s music. It wasn’t built around tightly constructed melodies that would reappear throughout the work. Rather, it was created to provide an aural landscape for the visual images unfolding on and around the Freedom Center. It was, by all measures, tremendously successful. So he decided to approach the stories in “The Illustrated Man” much the same way.
“I went through the book and, as I read it, I scored out sounds that best represented the stories in an auditory way to me,” said Greenberg. “I wasn’t trying to do everything differently. But that’s how they came out. What I ended up with was four stories in four movements.”
The only thing missing was a visual element. This is an opera, after all, and not a staged reading.
That’s where visual artist Steven Mast enters the mix. He’s a tattoo artist and surfboard designer. If you ask politely, he might even impart his visual style to a guitar.
When we spoke on the phone, he was sitting in the parking lot at Tourmaline, a legendary surfing beach on that stretch of California waterfront between San Diego and La Jolla. He has met several times with Burnham and Greenberg and the rest of the production crew.
“But honestly, over the course of the last few months, I’ve never been tasked with anything other than showing up and giving them some opinions,” said Mast. He’s not troubled about it. Perplexed, perhaps. So without anyone to explain what role he might play in this production, he set to work on his own.
“As a tattooist, you would create sets of flash sheets,” he explained. Flash sheets are a holdover from the old carnival days when a tattoo artist hung a display of his designs outside a tent to entice people to go inside and part with a few dollars.
“So I reread the stories a few times and started a set of flash inspired by what I read,” he said. “At some point, I figure they’re going to ask me for something, and when they do, at least I’ll have this.”
As we went to press, there was no word on exactly how Mast’s images might be called into play. He’s still not fretting about it. It’s morning in San Diego, the surf is looking good and he has just enough time to get in the water for a bit before heading off to work on a new shipment of surfboards.
“Last week, I heard there was a producer and a stage manager,” said Mast. “Oh, and there are sound guys, too. I’m astounded by how little anyone has asked me to do, but it’s really exciting to be a part of this.”
‘The Bradbury Tattoos’
Memorial Hall, Over-the-Rhine
Friday, July 13: 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Sunday, July 22: 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
$40 general admission, $20 students
“The Bradbury Tattoos” is an operatic collaboration among the contemporary classical ensemble concert:nova, fusion composer Zac Greenberg, librettist and playwright Michael Burnham, and tattooist and surfboard shaper Steven Mast.
Adapted from Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” a provocative and powerful set of short stories, this production will lead the audience, tattoo by tattoo, through multiple spaces within Memorial Hall.
Concert:nova will produce the original rock opera in part through a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.