Horse Lords, Lola Pierson collaborate on new opera ‘The First Thing That Happens’

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Andrew Bernstein of Horse Lords, left, and playwright Lola B. Pierson. Credit: Brenda Wintrode.

Playwright, director and long-time Horse Lords fan Lola B. Pierson said collaborating with three of the band’s members on her latest opera added a lot of pressure. More than any other time in her career.

“I admire them a lot so I feel like I have to be as good as they are,” said Pierson, 36. “It is a lot of pressure to feel I am enough, or that my ideas are enough.”

The band’s polyrhythmic instrumentals appeal to the problem-solving part of Pierson’s brain, she said, describing it as “thinky-feely.” She appreciates the structure and beauty of their music and credits their live performances with encouraging her to carry on when the challenges of her arts career were looming.

“I had the experience of giving up on art a lot of times and then like going to a Horse Lords show and being like ‘art’s cool,'” said Pierson.

What emerged from their creative union was The Acme Corporation‘s production of “The First Thing That Happens,” a lyric and sonic exploration of the trials of human interaction, which opens Feb. 13 at The Voxel.

During the seven-act production, the cast members—who all play indistinct opera actors—struggle to convey their artistic ideas to each other and the audience as they write an opera in real time. Pierson strung together script, lyrics, silence and movement to reveal the delicate nuance of communication, an element she described as the tragedy of being human.

“I think people relate to the idea that we’re never really communicating in the way we want to be,” Pierson said. “We’re never saying the thing we want to say, we’re never actually understanding other people, but we keep trying.”

Horse Lords members Andrew Bernstein, Max Eilbacher and Owen Gardner wrote vocal lines and instrumentals to punctuate Pierson’s words. Bernstein, a saxophonist and percussionist in the band, said vocal parts were new and difficult for an experimental music group that almost entirely uses instrumentation and musical phrases.

“Sometimes it’s sort of coming at it obliquely, like as in not having a word sung. Like having it sort of just declaimed,” said Bernstein, 34, who in addition to working on the band’s four albums, has recorded four solo albums.

Bernstein described the soundtrack for the production as a combination of electronic sound and sampled instruments, including samples of the singers in the opera. The band’s pre-recorded tracks will be played in sync with the actors’ on-stage performances, adding an extra challenge, as the band will not be performing the score live.

“We rehearse our music, and we play,” said Bernstein, describing their typical preparation for a show. “There’s elements of improvisation, but we’re there playing it.”

Both artists previously worked together on the 2015 operetta “Determination of Azimuth,” about the life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was also highlighted in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” Pierson directed and Bernstein wrote the music, and the two had been considering other joint endeavors.

“Andrew and I had been talking for a long time about doing something together again, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe we should do a thing with Horse Lords,'” said Pierson, who lives in a house with Gardner, a guitarist in the band. “So it was really convenient.”

Pierson, who has a Master of Fine Arts from Towson University and has written 15 plays since 2005 and directed 12, said she hopes “The First Thing That Happens” helps audience members connect emotionally with their own relationships with human communication.

“I think of plays as a visual and auditory art form,” Pierson said. “I think about experiencing a play the same way I think about experiencing an album, which is like at the end, I hope you are fundamentally changed by it in a way that is maybe intangible and indescribable.”

Central to the opera’s theme is the sacrifices the seven characters make in order to be understood as artists, an experience to which Pierson and Bernstein said they can both relate.

“The people in your life have to be either extremely supportive and flexible, or you have to make a choice between those people and your work,” said Pierson.

Weeks away from the first performance, the two are still experiencing the time demands of their collaboration. The details of the production are still under scrupulous review as the creative team attempts to hone its message, forming a virtual Russian nesting doll of irony around an opera written about artists striving to communicate.

“I’m still rewriting the script, and they’re still recording the music,” said Pierson, gesturing toward Bernstein.

Despite the long hours that will continue up until opening night, Pierson said she has experienced moments of creative bliss, like the moment she heard her lyrics sung to Horse Lords music for the first time.

“The singers sing it, and I’m like, This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” Pierson said, experiencing the contentment, perhaps, of being understood.

“The First Thing That Happens,” runs from Feb. 13-March 1 at The Voxel. Tickets are available online at The Acme Corporation on a sliding scale from $10-$50.

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