“Wise Blood,” the 1952 debut novel from the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, takes place in Taulkinham, a fictional small town situated somewhere in Tennessee.
Multi-media artist Chris Larson had some memories of the real Tennessee to draw on as he constructed sets for a new opera adapted from “Wise Blood” premiering in June at The Soap Factory. Those memories include the St. Paul native’s first trip to rural Tennessee, at age 15, with a youth group.
“We went down to help build a — maybe it was a YMCA or something,” Larson recalled vaguely. “It was deep in the backwoods, so I saw a lot of things I’d never seen before.”
“The landscape seemed different, the culture seemed different, the way people lived, their houses, the stuff on the front lawns,” he said. “There was an immediate attraction to it.”
His story is a tidy bit of novelistic foreshadowing, given that architecture and building construction later would figure so prominently in Larson’s sculptural practice. An elevated covered bridge he built out of raw pine lumber occupied a Walker Art Center lobby for several months in 2011, and for the 2013 Northern Spark festival in St. Paul he first built and then burnt to the ground a full-scale replica of a 2,000-square-foot house designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer.
Larson, now a member of the art faculty at the University of Minnesota, said the South remains both a fascination and an inspiration for his work today. The same goes for O’Connor, who died of complications from lupus at age 39 in 1964. Her entire published works consist of just two novels, three short-story collections and several books of her correspondence, essays and criticism.
Larson has read most, if not all, of it and shares his appreciation of O’Connor with the composer Anthony Gatto, his friend of nearly 25 years. They were graduate students when they met in 1991 at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Conn.
“I was visiting a friend who was teaching photography there,” Gatto recalled. “Every year they commission three sculptors from the grad school to put site-specific works up, and Chris was one of them.
“I ended up giving him a hand while he was building a work up there and we ended up becoming roommates that fall.”
Gatto said he first encountered “Wise Blood” as an undergraduate. O’Connor mixes the comic and the grotesque in the story of war veteran Hazel Motes, the grandson of a preacher whose tortured relationship with his faith leads him to found the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. Motes is the lead in a cast bristling with eccentrics.
“It’s considered Southern gothic, which means that basically all the characters are really amped-up and there’s a lot of mayhem,” Gatto said. “So, it’s a really colorful, to put it mildly, novel to work with.”
Gatto and Larson decided several years ago to make “Wise Blood” their next project following a collaboration on another experimental opera, a stage adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans.” It ran for two nights in 2008 at the Walker Art Center. (The museum also co-commissioned “Wise Blood” with The Soap Factory.)
Gatto, who spent about five years writing both the score and the libretto for “Wise Blood,” conjures a world that operates on its own odd, hermetic logic. Like TV preachers on a studio stage, the actors will all carry handheld microphones during the performance, and both the audience and the 13-piece orchestra will walk with them through The Soap Factory’s three galleries.
There’s no ticket required to tour Larson’s sets, which successfully give physical form to the twisted psyches of the novel’s characters. Whole apartment rooms and even a two-story building are flopped on their sides, so that staircases run across the ceiling and beds stand up against a far wall. The forced perspective Larson employs in several of the sets adds to the vertiginous feeling of unreality.
“As the characters walk into these spaces the reality of everything dissolves, but as they get locked into their space I think your eyes start to try to make sense of this unhinged space,” he said.
The opera’s opening night was sold out as of mid-May, although tickets remained for the other seven performances.
When: Through June 14. Performances run June 4–7 and June 11–14
Where: The Soap Factory, 514 2nd St. SE
Info: soapfactory.org, 623-9176