Bovinus Rex

Music and libretto by Rudolf Rojahn
Directed by Copeland Woodruff

Premiere: May 24, 2012
Location: The Zack Box at The Boston Conservatory (Boston, MA)

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“Guerilla Opera’s Bovinus Rex is a raunchy, poignant and musically interesting short piece of opera.” @bostonlowbrow

A cattle farm in rural Ohio faces imminent bank foreclosure. With only a trophy wife and a slow-witted man child as laborers, the owner and operator invents a machine to quickly slaughter his herd. Trouble unfolds when his long-lost daughter, now a militant animal rights activist, returns disguised as a heifer to sabotage her father’s operation. As events begin to spin out of control she is forced to confront the practicality of her once-puritanical worldview.

RudyRojahn-WebsiteSeveral years ago I had become very interested in animal rights and issues surrounding the production of our food in America. There were a plethora of horrors and injustices to be found and it didn’t take long to become morally outraged. On deeper examination it became more and more clear however, that mistreatment and a certain moral relativism was present not just in American agribusiness but in the entire construct in which animals provide us food and other products. There is no way to live in our society with completely clean hands because the use of animals as commodities is inextricably interwoven with our societies and historical success as a species.

That creates a paradigm in which everyone must decide for themselves what an acceptable amount of suffering is, a decision dictated not only by ethics but by social and financial factors as well There is a beauty to black and white, righteous moral positions but they usually disregard the knotty complexity of real life. As a younger man I felt much more confident in the value of moral certitudes. Like fundamentalist religions however, the simplification of multi-faceted issues usually creates more problems and injustices than it ultimately resolves.

A large impetus for writing this story was to investigate both the beauty and danger of fanatical belief and the moral righteousness of youth; a study of how our identities are defined by the issues and beliefs we hold dear.

CopelandWoodruff-webAs with any one-act opera or play, the scenes are condensed and every moment counts in uncovering these complex characters and their extreme desperation. This production builds upon the environment created by Rojahn’s music and libretto – a B-horror movie aesthetic.

The title of the opera suggests a primitive sacrifice out of antiquity, and begins with iconic shadow play in the overture. This ritual dance reaches a fever pitch when the Bovinus-Man is sacrificed. This moment is accompanied by the “machine music” which reappears throughout the opera and embodies a dangerous and ominous presence in the space.

The slow consumption of the set, covered by butcher paper, alludes to the consumer nature of the meat and food industries. A large piece of butcher paper is hung to conceal the farmer’s machine and is ripped up as the opera progresses, which slowly reveals the “Precision Kut 5200” cattle-slaughtering machine. The actors not only “consume” the set by ripping up the paper, but there are other machine-like elements in the staging, such as eating and assembly-line dressing.

Two actors play multiple characters, which continues dynamics between the fictional characters they portray and additionally explores the meta-relationship the two actors have with each other. The near-palindromic libretto pits these actors against one another as their characters change and shift back into view, ignoring the fact that other actors may be playing their original scene partner.

Though one might expect more of dialogue about the pros and cons of the meat industry or animal husbandry, Rojahn’s opera only uses it as a backdrop to examine how far we will go and how much we are willing to sacrifice for our own needs and for those we love. – Copeland Woodruff