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Manning’s Iraq war leaks come to life with modern music

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SF Opera Lab presents the local premiere of “The Source,” an evocative multimedia oratorio. (Courtesy Stefan Cohen)

When the news of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks first made headlines, the implications seemed almost too enormous to grasp. Which is part of what makes “The Source” such a remarkable piece.

Ted Hearne’s contemporary oratorio, which opened last weekend in a SF Opera Lab production, creates a searingly indelible impression in 75 minutes.

Directed by Daniel Fish, the production offers an unusually immersive music-theater experience. The audience is seated at odd angles, surrounded by large screens on four walls, showing faces in closeup: men and women watching, scanning, some with tears in their eyes. What are they reacting to? The answer eventually becomes clear.

With a seven-piece orchestra seated behind one of the screens, and four vocalists strategically placed throughout the audience, Hearne and librettist Mark Doten take us into the world of Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who released nearly quarter of a million documents to WikiLeaks.

Scored in 12 movements, “The Source” doesn’t proceed in traditional narrative style. The libretto is a collage, setting bits of texts from war logs, classified documents, emails between Chelsea (then Bradley) and hacker Adrian Lamo. Hearne’s score veers between song cycle and rock opera, with R&B effusions and snippets of pop songs — “Mack the Knife,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — woven into a dense sound world.

It’s all bracingly high-tech. When the singers, their voices heavily processed, deliver lines from casualty reports, the effect is both poetic and terrifying: “Smoke when bird nears” yields an irresistible groove.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears a ghostly figure in “Julian in a Nutshell.”

Manning’s writings muse on gender questions: “I behave and look like a male, but it’s not me.”

The performance ends with black and white footage from the infamous “Collateral Murder” video showing U.S. forces killing Iraqi citizens. The horror on faces shown on the screens finally feels apt.

The musicians — Nathan Koci (keyboard), Jennifer Cho (violin), Natalia Vershilova (violin), Emil Miland (cello), Taylor Levine (guitar), Greg Chudzik (bass) and Ron Wiltrout (drums) — play with thrilling verve, and vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody deliver their parts with icy precision.

Manning’s story isn’t over; her 35-year prison sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in January. She’s scheduled to be released in May. And “The Source” has resonance far beyond the incidents it portrays. Hearne’s oratorio asks significant questions about the nature of information – who has it, and who gets to know.

REVIEW
The Source
Presented by SF Opera Lab
Where: Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 1-3
Tickets: $35
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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