Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man' transforms into Rock Opera 'The Bradbury Tattoos'

Cincinnati's concert:nova presents the world premiere of its multi-media production this Friday (July 13) at Memorial Hall.

Jul 10, 2018 at 9:52 am
click to enlarge Poster art for concert:nova's production of "The Bradbury Tattoos" - PHOTO: Provided
PHOTO: Provided
Poster art for concert:nova's production of "The Bradbury Tattoos"

There’s so much more to Ray Bradbury than Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Over the course of a career spanning nearly 70 years, the astonishingly prolific author — who died in 2012 — wrote hundreds of short stories, screenplays, teleplays, essays, poetry and novels that imagined a future uncomfortably reflecting present-day realities.

Bradbury’s use of exotic settings, interpersonal conflicts and outsized emotions are on an operatic scale. So, fittingly, one of his most famous collections of sci-fi short stories, 1951’s The Illustrated Man, takes the stage at Memorial Hall this Friday (July 13) and July 22 as The Bradbury Tattoos, a multi-media opera and the first such work commissioned by concert:nova. The Bradbury Tattoos received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; this will be its world premiere.

In keeping with concert:nova’s model, this collaboration brings together the area’s immense creative talents to celebrate Bradbury’s genius in unique, intriguing formats. The stage adaptation is by Michael Burnham with a score by Zac Greenberg and visuals by tattoo artist and surfboard shaper Steven Mast.

Greenberg and concert:nova’s producing artistic director, Ted Nelson, had been kicking around collaborative projects for years. “We’re both Classic Rock and science fiction nerds,” says Greenberg, adding that they first thought of David Bowie after his death in 2016, but when Nelson reread Bradbury’s short story collection, the direction seemed clear.

“It struck me that even though these are science fiction stories, they’re conversations about ideas, and that lends itself to an operatic setting,” Nelson says.

The Illustrated Man is a series of 18 stories depicted by tattoos on a wandering freak-show worker barred from performing; each tattoo becomes an animated, unsettling story.

Nelson and concert:nova’s managing artistic director, Ixi Chen, enlisted actor and dramaturg Burnham to help determine which stories to use, and to craft the libretto. Four were chosen: “The Last Night of the World,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Zero Hour” and “The Highway,” and the task of transforming a highly visual and verbal work into opera began.

Greenberg multi-tasks as an instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, producer, arranger and activist. His experiences scoring films and videos were the foundations for composing an opera, although the format is anything but traditional.

“Since this was an adaptation, I approached it like a film score,” he says. “I took notes as I read the stories, and did an outline of sound design by creating reference tracks. I gave those to Michael; he created a libretto based on what he heard.”

Burnham calls those soundscapes brilliant and hugely helpful to building the format for each story. To create a unifying structure, he replaced the unnamed narrator with three characters.

“It’s a combination of straight singing and sprechstimme, a kind of spoken singing,” Burnham says. “A woman, a man and a child begin to tell the stories and as the stories take over, the singers become integrated into the soundscape.”

The original staging called for each story to be performed in a different venue in Memorial Hall. But the logistics proved to be complex, so all four stories will play in the main auditorium.

Greenberg describes the score as a mix and match, and his original instrumentation has changed with the staging. “There’s a lot of improvised stuff in it,” he says. “A lot of Jazz musicians will be involved, although it’s not traditional Jazz.”

Tattoos are the crucial framing device for the opera. The concert:nova team secured Mast, a nationally recognized tattoo artist with strong local ties. He divides his time between San Diego and Cincinnati, where he works at Designs by Dana in Covington.

Nelson says that Mast’s old-school tattoo training is in perfect sync with the stories themselves. “Steve is a great traditional tattoo artist with a deep appreciation of the history of tattoos going back to the ’50s,” he says.

Mast began by creating black-and-white mockups and a “tattoo” for each story, which he shared with other creative team members. The completed images will be in full color in a variety of formats. For example, there will be glow-in-the-dark designs for the “Kaleidoscope” story, which takes place in outer space.

“The tattoo art makes this a genuine audio-visual experience,” Greenberg says.

Nelson also hopes to display examples of 1950s carnival and tattoo art from Designs by Dana’s historical collection during the opera’s run at Memorial Hall.

Staging this complex mix of words, music and visuals will be Kelvin Chan, who has worked extensively with new and experimental opera.

Experimental genre bending is always the name of the game for concert:nova. “It wouldn’t be worth it if we weren’t pushing the envelope,” Nelson says.

Greenberg agrees. “It’s a perfect time for this. Cincinnati’s blowing up artistically right now, really coming into its own.”

The Bradbury Tattoos occurs 6 and 9 p.m. Friday (July 13) and 5 and 8 p.m. July 22 at Memorial Hall (1225 Elm. St., Over-the-Rhine). Tickets: concertnova.com