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The Opera of Jurassic Technology 

An offbeat musem gets its own musical treatment, Wunderkabinet

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
Deep in the wilds of Venice, Calif., sits the world's most satirical museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with dinosaurs. Instead, meticulous dioramas highlight fictional oddities -- such as supernatural bats and "fruit-stone carving" -- with the solemnity of a library, while explanatory placards serve only to confuse. The overall effect is of an elaborate lie far preferable to reality.

Experimental opera singer, electronic composer, and performance artist Pamela Z admired the museum instantly, she says, finding it "humorous or strange, but also deeply touching, almost like being in church." One exhibit, in particular, caught Z's attention: "No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935," which features bizarre messages to scientists; it resonates with a lot of people. But Z took her fascination a step further and wrote an opera about it: Wunderkabinet uses video art shot at the museum by Christina McPhee; projected photography; spoken pieces that mimic the museum's listening devices; and music composed and performed in collaboration with cellist Matthew Brubeck, son of Dave and late of the Club Foot Orchestra.

The opera takes Alice May Williams, the exhibit's star letter-writer, as its main character, and has her travel from New Zealand to California hoping to find the astronomers to whom she has written. "She becomes absorbed into the museum," Z says, "and she believes she has an important role to play, to disseminate knowledge to people. She goes from a possibly insane person to a docent, and then she becomes a ghost," as the audience realizes that Williams must have written her confused but heartfelt missives at least 100 years ago.

Z promises that people who have never been to the Jurassic will get a taste of the museum, and her production does indeed appear to be a carefully crafted and beautiful falsehood, like its inspiration.

About The Author

Hiya Swanhuyser


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