Perfect Lives

Perfect Lives (Catskills), Video shot and edited by Matthew Bernard


An opera by Robert Ashley
Arranged and performed by Varispeed
Varispeed first formed in 2011 to perform an off-the-cuff, site-specific rendition of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives.  They have subsequently performed the piece with arrangements tailored to the musical community of each place. November 2011 (Performa Biennial, Manhattan), August 2013 (Mount Tremper Arts, Catskills), and May 2014 (Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, Pittsburgh).

Bring Perfect Lives to your town!

About Varispeed’s Perfect Lives
Perfect Lives is a daylong, site-specific performance of Robert Ashley’s 1983 opera adapted by Varispeed, a newly formed collective of composer-performers. The performance consists of seven half-hour episodes, each at a different location around town.Perfect Lives takes the events of a day in an imaginary Midwestern town and remaps them so that each episode takes place in a different location. The performance starts at 11 am and continues intermittently until 11:30 pm. As performers and audience members journey from location to location, participants re-imagine the big city as a folksy town where the bank tellers know the captain of the football team and everyone drinks together at the end of the night. Varispeed’s performance will use spatial intimacy to help animate the story — performances will happen inside homes, parks, and businesses, over shared snacks and shared readings, rather than on stages or behind lecterns. Perfect Liveswill bring together musicians, performers, fans and community members alike in a celebration of American opera.Ashley, a major figure of post-war American composition, has written almost exclusively for opera during the past thirty-five years, and Perfect Liveswas his first major opera. Its seven episodes weave the intersecting stories of the people in the American Midwest, centered around a mysterious crime, an elopement, and the mischief of two itinerant musicians. Ashley uses the everyday expressions of the region to create a poetic mix of the quotidian with the lofty. The text is delivered by a primary narrator, using rhythmically precise speech, and is supplemented by an interjecting backing chorus.Varispeed’s performance of Perfect Lives will feature fresh takes on instrumentation, amplification, and melodic content, while still maintaining the formal, metric, and chordal frameworks of the originals. It is not a imitative interpretation of Ashley’s Perfect Lives, but instead seeks to reanimate Ashley’s material in new ways, stemming from the Varispeed members’ own individual relationships with the piece.


Robert Ashley, a distinguished figure in American contemporary music, holds an international reputation for his work in new forms of opera and multi-disciplinary projects. His recorded works are acknowledged classics of language in a musical setting. He pioneered opera-for-television. The operatic works of Robert Ashley are distinctly original in style, and distinctly American in their subject matter and in their use of American language. Fanfare Magazine calls Ashley’s Perfect Lives“nothing less than the first American opera…”, and The Village Voice comments, “When the 21st Century glances back to see where the future of opera came from, Ashley, like Monteverdi before him, is going to look like a radical new beginning.”The Kitchen (New York) commissioned Perfect Lives as an opera for television in 1980, broken into seven half-hour episodes. The opera was co-produced with Great Britain’s arts network, Channel Four, in August 1983. First broadcast in Great Britain in April 1984, Perfect Lives has since been seen on television in Austria, Germany, Spain and the United States and has been shown at film and video festivals around the world. It is widely considered to be the pre-cursor of “music-television.” Staged versions of the operas Perfect Lives, Atalanta (Acts of God), and the tetralogy, Now Eleanor’s Idea, have toured throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. Ashley and his company have been presented at the Avignon Festival, the Festival d’Automne à Paris, Musica Strasbourg, the Almeida Festival (London), the Festival de Otono (Madrid), New Music America (New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Philadelphia), the Inventionen Festival and the Hebbel Theater (Berlin), by the Gaudeamus Foundation (The Netherlands), the USIS Interlink Festival (Japan), the Next Wave Festival (New York) and SITE Santa Fe. Ashley died on March 3, 2014, shortly before the premiere of his last opera, Crash at the Whitney Biennial.


BEST OF 2011!
“Staged by performance-art cabal Varispeed in public and private spaces throughout the Village and Soho, this live version of Robert Ashley’s seminal multimedia opera was punky and profound, showing that innovation has less to do with bottomless budgets than with vision and spirit.”
from “The Best (and Worst) of 2011” [Dec. 11, 2011]

“The Varispeed production, presented as part of the Performa 11 festival, was less an act of rescuing a work from oblivion than one of repurposing its materials to unleash latent potential, while remaining faithful to its textural integrity and structural rigor.”
“That Varispeed’s members could express themselves so readily through Mr. Ashley’s work while remaining faithful to it was impressive.”
-Steve Smith, NEW YORK TIMES
[Nov. 8, 2011]

“The ensemble’s stated goal of community, conceived on behalf of a composer with long ties to New York’s avant-garde, feels like an invitation for viewers to occupy seven city locations on behalf of an anti-corporate cultural underground.”
“It’s an information-rich mix that’s impossible to fully absorb on a first encounter, but also one that wears its complexity with a pleasing lightness.”
“This weekend could be the perfect opportunity to discover some new aspects of the good life.”
-Seth Colter Walls, CAPITAL
[Nov. 4, 2011]

Interviews with Robert Ashley:

“You know, the curious thing is that there’s another version floating around. It’s by Varispeed, these people from Brooklyn who do site-specific performances. They did it last summer—it was beautiful. And now they’re going to do it again in Manhattan. Better check them out. So now we have another version which is going to be as good, and it’s going to break my heart again.”
-BOMB Magazine
[Dec. 20, 2011]

“When it was done for TV, the idea was that it’s cooked; that’s the way it was done, then these young people come along and say, ‘It’s not cooked! We have another idea about it.’ ”
[Oct. 21, 2011]



Perfect Lives Catskills

Recorded and edited by Matthew Bernard

Perfect Lives Manhattan
A Film in Seven Episodes by Robert O’Haire