Burning Man, the opera

"A Burning Opera: How to Survive the Apocalypse," which is in limited engagement in San Francisco, attempts to explain the annual countercultural arts festival to the uninitiated.

One of the major messages of Michael Rauner

SAN FRANCISCO--For Ron Meiners, the aha! moment came during Burning Man 2006.

A longtime attendee of the countercultural arts festival, Meiners had been thinking about how one would explain what Burning Man is to someone who had never been. The answer, he decided, was obvious: an opera.

In typical Burning Man fashion, as he was standing in line at the port-a-potties, describing this epiphany to a friend, a man next to them piped up and said, in effect, "Are you talking about putting together an opera about Burning Man? I create operas. Can I help?"

Today, the fruits of those dusty conversations are on view for all to see: "A Burning Opera: How to Survive the Apocalypse," which is currently in limited engagement at the gorgeous Teatro ZinZanni here.

While Meiners is no longer directly involved, executive producer Dana Harrison, Mark Nichols, who scored the show, and well-known culture writer Erik Davis, who wrote the libretto, ran with Meiners' idea and over the course of the last three years, have put together this show. The core goal is still the same: to provide a moving picture of what the event, held each summer in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, is really all about, as well as some of its history.

As an 11-time Burning Man attendee, I was excited when I heard about the opera, especially given its explicit mission: communicating "the transformational madness of the (Black Rock Desert) to the 'burning curious.'"

A Burning Opera has a promising central story line: the experience of a pair of newbies--otherwise known as first-time attendees--who arrive in the desert thoroughly unprepared for what's in store for them, apparently thinking that time at Burning Man is akin to any other camping trip.

Dressed in street clothes for an event where every kind of attire (or lack thereof) goes, save for street clothing, the pair--presented as a young, attractive, heterosexual couple--quickly discover things are not at all as they seem.

That, of course, is the springboard for two hours of colorful examination of various elements of the Burning Man experience.

For years, several specific stereotypes have been widely disseminated about Burning Man. The most frequent are that the event's thousands of attendees are focused primarily on drugs and sex and that they are largely, to paraphrase, "a bunch of hippies."

To buy into that is to ignore the fact that what really goes on in the Black Rock Desert for a week leading up to Labor Day each year is much, much more complex. There are hippies, of course, but there are equal numbers, if not more, of tech industry executives, rocket scientists, accomplished sculptors, singers, dancers and painters, firemen and firewomen, and so on.

A scene from Michael Rauner

And while there can be no denying that drugs--and the much more common alcohol--are a significant factor, and that there is plenty of nudity and sexual behavior, anyone who has actually been to Burning Man will tell you that the dominant elements are large-scale art, welcoming communities, music, and a culture of participation.

The Burning Opera tries to address the core components of what some attendees call "That Thing in the Desert," but in my opinion, focuses too much on the easy stereotypes.

While it's true that the show tries to dispel the myth that it's all about drugs--the man in the newbie couple is seen struggling through the effects of an acid trip, only to be told, in a singing number, that there is much more to Burning Man than mind-altering substances--it certainly does nothing to make anyone think that such substances aren't a major part of what goes on in the desert.

Similarly, an attempt to show the woman from the newbie couple coming to grips with sides of herself she's never allowed to see the light of day are expressed by having her stripped topless by a band of burners and left that way for much of the show.

In the moment, the show's writers were trying to make two simultaneous points: that transformation was the goal of attending, and that it should not be exploited. The latter point was driven home by virtue of a scene in which a photographer tries to shoot the topless woman and is quickly chided for doing so.

The transformation of one of the newbies--on the right--begins in a scene from A Burning Opera: How to Survive the Apocalypse. Michael Rauner

If she had then put her top back on, the point would have been made, and we could all have moved on. Yet she remained bare-chested for nearly the rest of the show.

And the focus on sexuality didn't stop there: one grand number near the end featured many of the performers dancing vigorously to a song about polyamory--again something that is seen by some as a common element of the Burning Man world. To me, this was overplayed because while you can find polyamory there, it is hardly the dominant paradigm.

Leaving the show, I worried that its creators had taken the easy route: stay close to the things most people know about Burning Man and it would be more attractive to general audiences. But they, in my opinion at least, had neglected to spend much time at all on what I believe is much more important: art and community.

Still, I wondered if my conclusion was a result of being too close to it all and looking for reasons to nitpick. After all, the theater had been packed to the rafters with hard-core burners, and most of them--including some high up in the Burning Man organization--seemed pretty happy with what they'd seen. Indeed, two of the organization's six board members are actually in the show, as is at least one other very senior staffer. Clearly, Burning Man itself has given a thumbs-up.

So, perhaps, I thought, I should filter my opinion through someone the show was actually trying to speak to: an audience member who had never been to Burning Man.

For that, I spoke with a 58-year-old gentleman named Rich Caragol, who told me that he had some familiarity with Burning Man through his ex-girlfriend but that he'd never been himself.

"I enjoyed how (the show) began, the transformation," Caragol said. "That's the big message I got...People were moving through whatever emotional state they were in, and people had some metamorphoses."

He said he concluded that transformation was the major message of the production due to the number of characters dealing with and emerging from a series of challenging situations--relationship problems, culture shock, physical problems, drug aftermath, and so on.

Caragol also pinpointed the sartorial change that the show's newbies went through, having arrived at Burning Man in street clothes and emerged later in the kinds of colorful and outrageous garb burners are known for.

"It is about change," he said of his impression of Burning Man, "even in what they wear, they get out of their suits and ties."

And he even felt that while the show did put its newbie characters through an ecstasy trip and the aforementioned LSD experience, the message was not that attendees are all under the influence all the time.

"It was a lot more than (just the) drugs, I thought." Caragol said. "That was just one element. I didn't think that was a focus of the show."

Indeed, where I came away missing a dramatic discussion of community, Caragol found it, pointing to the end of the show when the performers invited the audience into their inner circle to sing and dance. "That felt like it brought it all together," he said. "You could feel the power. I could just feel the resonance of what they were trying to communicate."

I guess, then, that it's all in the way you see things. From a literal perspective, I think that's true. Some of what was going on in the production was hard to see, as the Teatro ZinZanni is a theater in the round, and I believe that the Burning Opera is not well-served by such a venue. Of course, ZinZanni is a stunning space for its own performance and offered an opportunity to do the opera there, how could the producers of the opera refuse? That said, I'd like to see the show again in a standard theater.

Ultimately, I felt that the show needs some work, which is not surprising given that it has only been performed a few times in front of audiences and that it is still being refined. And as I've written, would do well to put more emphasis on community and art. But I was pleased to hear Caragol interpret the show as having been about transformation. Because, in the end, I do believe that that's what Burning Man is all about.

I asked him if he was now planning on attending That Thing in the Desert.

"Absolutely," he said. "I'm just going to go and do my own thing."

 

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