Ted Hearne’s The Source is a contemporary opera that upends the conventions and expectations of the medium. Rather than watching the performance, the audience watches itself. And what it sees is not always pleasant.
The Source is based on Chelsea Manning’s 2010 Army intelligence leaks, as well as her personal communications with former hacker Adrian Lamo, the man who turned Manning in. Manning handed over hundreds of thousands of stolen documents to WikiLeaks, including a video that came to be known as “Collateral Murder,” which depicts the deaths of unarmed Reuters journalists in Iraq. Ted Hearne, the composer and a music professor at USC, followed the WikiLeaks revelations and became fascinated with Manning once her identity was revealed. He and Doten visited a public hearing for Manning in 2011, which inspired them to craft an opera about her life and the information she made public. Manning was given a 35-year prison sentence at the conclusion of her trial.
Hearne’s score (which was released on New Amsterdam Records last year) exists at the dividing line between acoustic and electric, analogue and digital. The opera, with libretto by Mark Doten, opens with a ghostly voice processed with an auto-tune effect. The voice intones the text of army reports of Iraq War bombings. The pitches undulate back and forth, high and low, and the effect creates a voice that’s part human and part robot. The use of only two pitches is reminiscent of binary code. Hearne uses this motif whenever military logs are read.
Mixed in with the robotic voices is a string trio, a necessary bit of humanity in conflict with the mechanistic military reports. The strings play aching melodies of heartbreak and sadness; the notes reach out like boney fingers clawing at your heart. It’s easy to wallow in the emotions and slowly sink into your chair, but these moments are constantly interrupted by the mechanical voice and by drums, guitar, and electric bass.
As engaging as The Source’s score is, the design of the production is its most dominant element. The REDCAT theater is divided diagonally down the middle with wooden chairs arranged in a grid, both sides of the dividing line facing inward. It’s a discomfiting setup, simultaneously distancing and intimate. Each chair is its own island, a couple feet from the next one over. It’s an uncommon setup that robs the audience of the warmth and closeness that comes with sitting in the middle of a continuous row of seats.
Unlike a traditional opera, in which the audience observes the performers from afar, the audience stares at itself. It’s a supremely uncomfortable thing to look into the eyes of a stranger for over seventy minutes—it’s an intimate experience that seems more appropriate to a romantic couple than complete strangers. Most of the viewers closest to the dividing line either looked up at the video screens or down at their feet.
The screens that top each wall display the faces of nearly 100 people reading Manning’s military leaks. There’s a remarkable diversity to the faces, both in the races and ethnicities of the people viewing the documents, but also in their expressions. Early sections of the opera feature stoic faces deep in concentration, but as the work progresses, and the music becomes more emotionally resonant, barely controlled emotions begin to intrude. Some of the watchers stare on as a look of horror creeps over their faces. Others weep.
Every person on screen is watching a single piece of Manning’s leak, the “Collateral Murder” video. Among the hundreds of thousands of documents leaked, the video is perhaps the most striking information. It’s an assemblage of gunsight video and radio chatter from United States helicopters operating in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The pilots can be heard joking around as they target a group of men on the street, including two unarmed Reuters journalists. The helicopter crew pleads for permission to gun down the men, and they receive it with little fanfare (and seemingly no consideration of the appropriateness of such an action). There’s a haunting delay in the deaths of the men—the sound of gunfire is heard a second before the dust and destruction is seen on the video. It’s a horribly pregnant pause, in which we know that the men are dead, even as they continue to walk around for a little longer, seemingly unaware. Most are killed during the initial barrage, including one of the journalists. A man arrives in a van a short time later to carry the surviving journalist to a hospital. One of the pilots can be heard incessantly pleading to fire on them: “Come on, let us shoot!” He’s given the OK without any real deliberation. Once the second deadly delay elapses and the bullets rain down on the van, it explodes and flips through the air. Knowing that every person is viewing the video makes the faces on screen more sinister. Tears seem perfectly reasonable in hindsight, but what accounts for those who stare on with disinterested faces?
The Source ends in a state of conflict. The final number, “I encrypt as much as I can,” reprises the robotic voice and sorrowful strings of the opening, but they alternate with a ballad of Manning’s email confessions to Lamo. Manning details her struggles to understand her own gender and her moral conflict about serving in a war she considers unjust.
After the final notes, the musicians and singers go silent and the faces disappear from the screens. We watch the “Collateral Murder” video in its entirety. The Source has invited the audience to take the position of watchers—watching others as they watched the same video, watching the private conversations of Chelsea Manning, watching the military’s secret communications. Manning’s leaks were an attempt to put American citizens in a more equal position with the intelligence forces that watch us from the shadows and lead our country in its wars. We were given a chance to watch the watchers. Where we once turned a blind eye, now we must pay attention and shed our ignorance. It’s necessary to look at ourselves and come to terms with that fact. But it’s an uncomfortable, even painful, task. We can’t go on. We must go on.