Ars Electronica 1986
Festival-Program 1986
Back to:
Festival 1979-2007


Perfect Lives - an opera for television by Robert Ashley

'Kim Machon Kim Machon

Kim Machan
Robert Ashley's "Perfect Lives"
This major work from Robert Ashley, "Perfect Lives", will be broadcast at the end of each night (except June 20 and 24) of the ORF Videonale 86, seven nights, seven parts, each part being exactly 25 minutes, 50 seconds long. It was initiated to television in Britian by Channel Four TV and now for the first time in Austria by the ORF.

The significance of this work should not be underestimated, it is considered to be one of the most important video creations made for television and is definitely a mile stone in the history of video art. The work is rich in diverse levels and layers, a dreamlike and somewhat hypnotic quality is created by Ashley's narration. His "songs", his "stories from the corn belt … " float through story telling in his unique style which he describes as "vocal inflections that you might call singing". The video opera has not only expanded forms of video art and it's co-habitation with television (Director John Sanborn must be credited here) but also gives a fresh extension to a definition of opera. "I definitely call it an opera" Ashley told Roy McClose "but I'd be glad to call it something else if I could think of something else to call it, it's not like a European opera, it's not a musical version of drama."

The stories set in their locations, The Park, The Supermarket, The Bank, The Bar, etc., do have certain reoccurring elements and motives that bring in to play recognition and remembrance, this happens not only within each separate part, but the spiralling narrative refers to a part that was perhaps involved previously. The links that are made weave the seven nights viewing into a masterful whole that is overflowing with reverberations and echoes.
an opera for television by ROBERT ASHLEY

I. THE PARK (Privacy Rules)
III. THE BANK (Victimless Crime)
IV. THE BAR (Differences)
V. THE LIVING ROOM (The Solutions)
VI. THE CHURCH (After the Fact)
VII. THE BACKYARD (T'Be Continued)

Raoul de Noget (No-zhay), a singer, and his friend, Buddy, "The World's Greatest Piano Player", have come to a small town in the Midwest to entertain at The Perfect Lives Lounge. For some reason, unexplained, they have fallen in with two people from the town. Isolde ("nearing 30 and not yet spoken for") and her brother, "D", just out of high school and known as "The Captain of the Football Team" (his parents call him Donnie) plan to commit the perfect crime, a metaphor for something philosophical: in this case, to remove a sizable amount of money from The Bank for one day (and one day only) and let the "whole world know that it was missing".

"D" is currently Assistant to the Manager at The Bank. He learns that Gwyn, one of the tellers, intends to elope with his friend, Ed. "D" is asked to "come along" with Dwayne, another friend, who has a problem speaking (that is, he speaks but has trouble being understood.) "D" knows the key to opening the safe. The plan is, then: to take away the money in Ed's car to Indiana (goal of the elopers), to keep it in circulation, as it were! They leave at 5 AM.

While the lovers are in passage, Raoul and Buddy, with Buddy's dogs, and, separately, Isolde enter The Bank at midday. The dogs create a ruckus ("like a noise from Hades") that gives Isolde the excuse to get a bucket of water from next door to throw at the dogs and miss and soak the Bank Manager, who goes into the safe for a change of clothes, only to discover that there "is no money in The Bank". As part of the plan, Isolde has phoned the Sheriff's Office, disguising her voice (her father, Will, is The Sheriff, and his wife is Ida) to report the accident "out on the highway". There is no "accident", of course, and, recognizing the meaning of the decoy, Will puts it all together later under Ida's questioning. But it's too late.

Among the tellers (Jennifer, Kate, Eleanor, Linda and Susie) who are witnesses to the dog fight and the terrible discovery and who understand what happened from different points of view, so to speak, only Susie noticed that the dogs "went out together", and she's not telling. She fell in love at first sight with Buddy, who because of his fancy style of dress is often mistaken for a foreigner ("There's no doubt the Mexican is in on it. The question is whether he's Mexican.") That was at 12:45 PM ("remember that!") and in The Bank at that time are Helen and John, innocent by-standers form The Home, doing business "on a holiday". That is, they have fallen in love (in The Home), but they are not allowed to marry, or "one will lose the privileges". So, every other weekend they take adjoining rooms at the motel right off The Park (where, by coincidence, Raoul and Buddy live, and where we first meet Raoul trying to order breakfast on the phone). This is just the beginning of their weekend, and at 3 PM we see them in The Supermarket, shopping, a little jangled, set against each other by the excitement, but far from down and out. Sometime later, probably Monday in The Bar, Buddy and Raoul on their "day off from music" have come to celebrate, little knowing that there they will meet Rodney, The Bartender, whose wife, Baby, aspires to Boogie Woogie, ceaselessly and without much success ("happy she is, the traveling salesman say, but Boogie Woogie she is not.") studying the video tapes ("The Lessons") that Buddy takes around (to music stores). Rodney is philosophical, especially about Baby's talents, but skeptical about Boogie Woogie. And "now he's met his nemesis … face to face." They talk.

Meanwhile, back in time (to the evening of the big day, Will and Ida, in The Living Room, solve the puzzle, perhaps even to the motive, but it's too late. Somewhere in Indiana, with the money hidden in the car (unknown to Gwyn, of course: "Gwyn's not guilty") and certain of their success, Ed and Gwyn and Dwayne and "D" have found a Justice of the Peace who will perform the ceremony ("I handle speedtraps, elopements, true signatures and the like"), and who recognizes in Gwyn something so urgent ("and why is the Bride-to-be so-um-what is the word?"), something so dramatic ("She is a (p') monkey, Sir.") – that he is transported to somewhere in the past, to another ceremony, to another Bride-to-be ("Lucille", who speaks in tongues), to a confusion of time and place where other (famous) marriages are enacted: "Snowdrift", abandoned at the altar; and so forth. And while we pause to eat the wedding cake, his humble situation ("right off my bedroom is my office") is transformed before our very eyes, as it were, into The Church ("the church of the great light"). And we are satisfied.

Meanwhile, back in town, in The Backyard, a few friends and relatives have gathered, as usual in summer, to picnic, to celebrate the changing of the light at sundown. And watching from the doorway of her mother's house, Isolde counts the days.