Junkyard Opera 'The Temptation of St. Antony' to be Staged in Secret Downtown L.A. Location

Jordan Riefe

Experimental opera group brings Gustave Flaubert's hallucinatory text to life.

After early success with Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert labored intermittently through much of his career on The Temptation of St. Antony, which he finally published in 1874. Perhaps more than any of his novels it was something he held close to his heart, calling it “the work of my life,” which only made it more painful when critics greeted it with indifference at best and derision at worst. For Four Larks co-founder and junkyard opera maestro Mat Sweeney, and actor Max Baumgarten, The Temptation of St. Antony is neither. Instead, it is a surrealistic harbinger of postmodernism, an exceptional work that was ahead of its time, which is why they chose to stage it in an abandoned warehouse in downtown L.A. through March 6.

“There was a famous incident where Flaubert hosted this salon with all of his friends and he read the whole thing aloud and it took the whole night and at the end, all of his friends revolted and told him he should burn it and tear it up and how terrible it was,” Sweeney tells the The Hollywood Reporter, adding that first Sigmund Freud and later, French philosopher/critic Michel Foucault resurrected the piece. “So it recently reemerged as a text that almost makes more sense in our own time.”

Composed by Sweeney and longtime collaborator Ellen Warkentine, and directed by Sweeney and co-founder Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, the new opera centers on Antony of Egypt who tested his faith by leading a hermetic existence in the desert. Four Larks’ interpretation has Antony visited by a series of temptations, including the Seven Deadly Sins, Queen of Sheba, King Nebuchadnezzar, heretics, Gods, monsters and personifications of love and death.

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“He is very single-minded and is escaping for the sake of just having his own thoughts and simplifying visions,” offers Baumgarten, who portrays Antony in a mimetic, silent-era performance. “The problem is he’s intellectual and you hear the voice of the devil, you’re hearing the voice of all these other deadly carnal sins, but they’re all in his head and they have all the arguments for these things, the reason that they aren’t just black and white, the reason they’re appealing.”

Experimental theater group Four Larks can be described as many things, not the least of which is resourceful. Staging its productions in mysterious locations disclosed only after tickets are purchased, the group creates props, costumes and even musical instruments from materials found on the premises or culled from whatever empty lots members scour in the neighborhood. Last year Four Larks staged its Los Angeles debut, Orpheus, after moving there from Melbourne, Australia, its home since 2008.

“The space that we found had been an abandoned warehouse for the last five years and it was filled with materials from the business that had been operating there before us,” Sweeney says about the current show. “So we came across this treasure trove of objects that we could incorporate into the production and play with. It’s been a lot fun sorting through the junk heap.”

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Despite obvious inconveniences, Baumgarten welcomes the spontaneity that comes with performing in a found location rather than a theater. A siren or similar intrusion from the outside world can be incorporated or ignored, but either way it is a reminder to audience and performer alike that they are in a raw space and anything might happen. “Some of the most magic theater moments I’ve had have been in strange, unconventional spaces,” says Baumgarten. “Your brain slips it into the story line and it seems like it couldn’t have been planned better.”

And lest you think The Temptation of St. Antony is some dull, philosophical physic for the intellect, Sweeney compares it to a fantasy journey more like Alice in Wonderland than The Passion of the Christ. “The experience of him dealing with these visions that are tormenting him and all of these wild hallucinations that are appearing before him, it’s actually a very fun piece and we think people are going to be really surprised,” he says. “We like to think we’re making something that’s filtering that drive for people to get out and have a unique experience.”