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performance

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Robert Ashley, Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), 1985. Performance view, the Kitchen, New York, February 6, 2019. Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, and Amirtha Kidambi. Photo: Al Foote III.

OPERA, CHARLES ROSEN ONCE WROTE, is governed by “the expectation of essential lunacy.” Its unrepentant feeling, its curling decor, its warbling inheritances, all these gilded artifacts of empire seem so far from the word’s Latin root, opus, which translates to “work,” that favorite American religion.

The late operas of Michigan-born composer Robert Ashley (1930–2014) are staged with a dignified efficiency that seems at once to point backward to this etymology and to push the genre forward into the twentieth century. To begin a new presentation of Ashley’s 1985 Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) this past February at the Kitchen, six performers—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—walked briskly onstage and took their seats at identical black desks, as if clocking in for a nine-to-five job. The men wore ties, the women gauzy blouses. An

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