Let’s talk about Dog Days, because it’s a relatively rare circumstance for a piece of art to compel me to hop on a bus to New Jersey two weekends in a row. This post-apocalyptic opera was so dense with subtleties in the score and staging, topics of existential crises, and straight up gorgeous moments of performance, there was too much to fully absorb with just one viewing. But as I sit here trying to write about it, I’m finding it somewhat difficult to pinpoint what specifically lured me to a second performance.
And a bare warning for the rest of this post, I will be merciless with spoilers. It’s rather difficult to talk about the important stuff without spoiling the best scenes.
The general theme of Dog Days is a deconstruction of what makes humans human – what separates us as a species from animals. The story demonstrates from many angles and perspectives the differences [and more disturbingly, the similarities] a family of humans shares with a pack of dogs. An apocalypse is the perfect setting to start with, as it severs the chain that connects a group of people to it’s widely integrated civilization. When the playing field is [both literally and figuratively] leveled, we’re free to look at the family as an autonomous group, in which the patriarch gathers sustenance and the matriarch fosters the growth of her children. After that’s established, the story is free to address the hard-to-hear questions of how humanity is defined.
Traits: human or animal?
• The father struggles with his inability to provide for his family, and grows further frustrated as food sources vanish.
• The mother grows concerned as her sons become non-contributors.
• The mother blames the father for their depleting food supply, not the scenario which is out of their control.
• The sons surrender to easy-route physical addictions like drugs and masturbation when survival becomes unnaturally difficult, relegating all responsibilities to the father and mother.
Prince the dog-man: higher on the Darwinian scale?
From the very first scene, the we are asked to question whether the dog-man is a “stupid fucking weirdo”. His character is completely stagnant throughout the piece and that’s the point: he’s fallen into his role completely, which is adapted well enough for survival that he gets along at least as well as the “human” family. He’s sacrificed his humanity in order to preserve his survival. The father and brothers challenge him as not normal, but as Lisa aptly asks, “what’s normal anymore?” Darwin argued that those who survive are not necessarily the strongest, smartest, or fastest, but those most suited to the environment – which also includes those who are flexible enough to make their environment work for them.
The “humans”, who struggle to preserve as much as they can from their previously well-functional lifestyles, barely even attempt to adapt to the new environment, and do not adopt any new habits or make sacrifices to aid in their survival, and their gravitation to tradition instead of change puts them at a decisive disadvantage.
Yes, there is a political metaphor in there, and yes, I know you caught it, and so no, I won’t make it about any elections that may be forthcoming.
Danger: spoilers below
The final scene proves Prince’s adaptability when he finally senses the killing intent from the father with the rifle, and chooses to stand up on two legs to run away (it’s an especially powerful moment because of the previous scene in which the father unsuccessfully tries to force him to stand up). This speaks that Prince’s decision to be a dog was in fact a decision – one pointedly decided upon to increase his chances for survival – not that he forgot how to be a human or was for some reason delusional or insane.
Oh yeah, and the music was awesome, too.
Part of what I really appreciated about this piece was that very rarely was I able to detach from the story to observe nuances about the music, or staging, or execution. I see this as an entirely positive thing: it means that all the elements were working together in perfect harmony. David T Little’s score was fantastic, primarily for the way it executed its function of making every display of the emotions showcased by the cast and absorbed by the audience that much more potent.
I also didn’t catch it the first time, but there were a few tasteful moments of foreshadow to the final scene’s finger-on-the-plug guitar amp feedback loop, the first I noticed being the moment at the beginning of act 2, where the father held the gun to Prince’s chin. The amp feedback sound is Little’s “leitmotif” for the absence of humanity. Overall, I felt a generally visceral response to the emotion of the music – most noticeably when I choked up when Lisa started crying during her aria.
Don’t mind the haters
About the final scene, which left me shaking and in tears both times: I heard a lot of criticism about it’s so-called abruptness, and disconnect in music and pacing from the rest of the piece. I overheard a particular conversation that complained that the entire scene was stylistically too different from all the material before it, pushing the viewer away. And another in which it was stated that it took a last-minute turn into a horror B-movie.
My response to this criticism:
Sorry to hear you missed the entire point, dudes. Hope you get to watch it again.
I honestly can’t understand how anyone could arrive at such a critical conclusion, unless they were so busy nitpicking the technical aspects that the magnitude of the message breezes over their heads. I’m almost inclined to drop my John Cage argument: if you didn’t appreciate it, you probably didn’t understand it. That’s not to say anything of the criticism against the medium of opera in general - portraying a conversation through singing certainly as its pros and cons.
If the amp feedback was the motif for the loss of humanity, as it was alluded to multiple times, then everything is pieced together in the elucidating conclusion: the father’s and sons’ the cannibalization of Prince was the death of their humanity, and after the mother’s death from starvation, it leaves Lisa as the only human (I would argue that the soldiers have already surrendered theirs). So to where does the door of light in the back, through which Lisa walks when the zombies return home, lead? Heaven? Death? I don’t think it matters at all, because the moment she walks through it is the true apocalypse. The end of humanity. The End.
And there’s still so much more to talk about. The takeaways from Dog Days were whirlwind-like, so much so that if you aren’t questioning the state of civilization after watching it, I’m not convinced we were watching the same thing.
I really hope it’s picked up by some big shots and toured extensively. I think it’s that important.