The Water Isn’t Fine

“You are all good people, aren’t you?” asks Citizen Scientist #1 of her audience in Newtown Odyssey. The new opera, a collaboration between artist Marie Lorenz, composer Kurt Rohde, and writer Dana Spiotta, is designed to take place on the shores of Newtown Creek, the heavily polluted estuary separating Brooklyn from Queens. Last Friday’s dress rehearsal, however, was held at Amant, an arts organization located in an industrial stretch of East Williamsburg. Stylish European jetsetters in town for Armory rubbed shoulders with local artists, including Priscilla Stadler, whose zine, Tales from the Creek: The Adventures of Mollusca (Call Me “Mo”) Mussel, narrates Newtown’s remediation by way of a sentient, chatty bivalve. Earlier in the afternoon, members of the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) facilitated a “learnshop” about the history of the area (in the early twentieth century, the creek saw more cargo traffic than the entire Mississippi River) and the programs they’ve developed in support of its revitalization: rain gardens, native plant cultivation, educational tours, and political advocacy.

Set alongside the learnshop and Adventures of Mollusca, Newtown Odyssey seems ambivalent about the future of human occupation along Newtown Creek. At times, the mood is acerbic, as when Citizen Scientist #1 interrupts a monologue consisting of data read at random from an iPad to chide operagoers for parachuting into the creek where she herself is an interloper. Still, other eminences implore the crowd to stay: a pair of real estate developers hypes the kombucha (“Bio-fermented, right from the creek / Organic, unfiltered!”) served by the faux-post-industrial bar at their new luxury development (“Rich people need housing too!”). Spiotta’s libretto pulls language from community board meetings, developer decks, and research on toxins in urban soils distributed by the NCA. More than reportage, the opera is an unsettling meditation on desiring connection to a noxious site. “Give me ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’,” entreats an animistic “Creek Being,” coyly citing Emma Lazarus’s poem for the Statue of Liberty. But that wretched refuse is no longer “your tired, your poor,” etc., but “bristle worms, mussels, and cormorants.”

Running just under ninety minutes, Newtown Odyssey is a short for an opera, but dense with repeated phrases and crosstalk that accumulate like the fifteen feet of sludge that sits atop the estuary’s base. During the learnshop, Patricia Hernández, who oversees Amant’s public programming, noted that she felt keenly aware of the layer of particulate on her skin following a boat trip up the creek. Days after attending the rehearsal, I felt similarly marked by the opera’s thickly sedimented opening refrains: “Don’t be scared / Don’t touch the water / Don’t get in the water / Don’t drink the water.”