Mike Roberts '00 releases CD of 'Lotus Blooming'

by Ken Luallen | 11/13/00 6:00am

Only very rarely do I find an album that has a consistent level of quality throughout, like U2s "Joshua Tree" or Paul Simon's "Graceland." Sure, most CDs have a couple of good songs, but often times more than half of any given album is just filler material so that you don't complain when you shell out $17 for what is essentially a CD single. Michael T. Robert's latest work, "Lotus Blooming In a Sea of Fire: A Rock Opera," is one of the few releases I've heard in recent years that can be said to be truly complete.

As a Senior Fellow at Dartmouth last year, Mike was exempted from academic course requirements to concentrate all of his energies on the libretto, score, and lyrics of a full-length rock opera that received its world premiere in Spaulding Auditorium last spring. Featuring six singers, a narrator and an orchestra of eleven musicians, "Lotus" is a dramatic account of the massacre of 504 Vietnamese women, children and elderly by American soldiers in one tragic encounter during the Vietnam War.

The music from "Lotus," which stands completely on its own away from the stage production, is a truly unique and refreshing approach to musical theater. As opposed to a musical, an opera is generally a format in which the majority of the plot action is sung rather than spoken.

Although Roberts calls his work a "rock opera," he notes that "obviously not everything in the show is really rock. There's a lot of funk, r&b and some jazz influence. I used the rock designation to differentiate it from a classical opera."

Unlike the music of other popular productions, such as "Rent" or "Phantom of the Opera," the songs from "Lotus" don't employ any of the artificial vocal stylings and musical clichs that make so many of today's musicals sound like they were written for children. "Both opera and musical theater have sort of gone off the deep end as far as public tastes are concerned," Roberts said.

In contrast, "Lotus" is sung in a dynamic, lush style that takes full advantage of all six voices, which come from classical, gospel, jazz and a capella backgrounds.

Moreover, "the songs aren't incidental. In a lot of traditional musical theater, there's a complete dialogue and then they bust out into a song. But with most operas and certainly mine, if you didn't hear the songs, you'd be pretty lost." Remarkably, the lyrics are poetically eloquent without compromising their relevance to the plot or their significance to the many underlying themes touched upon in the Opera.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of "Lotus" is that there are no real narrative sections in any of the songs. Each song addresses the ever-changing emotions of the characters so incisively that the actual events are clearly outlined without being stated directly.

It is this emphasis on emotional substance that allows Roberts' work to transcend the context of a small Vietnamese village and have bearing on the everyday life of the listener. All of the music on the album teems with feelings of love and responsibility, fear and doubt, and the irrevocability of our actions. "Even if you don't understand exactly what's going on, the music will draw you in. That's what you apprehend immediately without having to think about it. Your body and emotions just react," Roberts said.

"Lotus" was recorded live during the original cast's first public performance of the opera, a fact that the listener can sense at several points in the album. While there are some minor mistakes, there is also a level of vibrant energy that could not have been captured otherwise. "There's something that's kind of cool about getting the mistakes along with all of the good stuff. On Sting's first solo album his voice cracks in one spot, and you would think that Sting, being the perfectionist that he is, would take that out but he doesn't. I really love that because it shows that he's human and that he can accept that," Roberts said.

While the "Lotus" CDs are taken from a staged opera performance, they sound more like a live album recorded by a band. "I knew from the beginning that it was essentially going to be a concert version and that I wouldn't be relying on a lot props and stage action. The emphasis is really on the music because, for me, the music is king," Roberts said.

To the casual listener, "Lotus Blooming In a Sea of Fire" offers two CDs worth of exceptional music and singing. For those willing to enter the greater sphere of the opera, "Lotus" holds a wealth of inquiries and reflections on the tragedies and triumphs of the world that we live in. Thankfully, Mike Roberts proves through music that our emotional and intellectual sides are not at all mutually exclusive.

Copies of the opera, which have been released on both CD and video, are available at the Dartmouth Bookstore as well as on his website, www.michaelroberts.com. Mike is currently working in New York City composing music for various lyricists and preparing the opera for future production.