Composer Ted Hearne is known for taking on political issues in his work, including 2014’s multimedia piece “The Source,” onstage in a San Francisco Opera Lab presentation this week. (Courtesy photo)

‘Source’ takes on Chelsea Manning controversy

Composer Ted Hearne picked a bold, complicated, newsworthy topic for his 2014 oratorio “The Source” — the Chelsea Manning WikiLeaks case.

“There’s something about the way we wage war now that people don’t have to deal with it at all if they don’t want to,” says Hearne, describing themes addressed in the piece, which is drawn from secret documents and videos about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars released by Manning through WikiLeaks.

The digital-age work for four voices, instruments and video (which also explores how Manning struggled with gender identity) debuts locally this week, opening the second season of San Francisco Opera Lab’s contemporary, experimental programming.

Mentioning “incontrovertible evidence of cover-ups and real crimes,” Hearne, who wrote 2009’s award winning song cycle “Katrina Ballads” about Hurricane Katrina, said it was difficult to deal with the leaks because of their content and sheer number.

In making the work, Hearne didn’t read all of the leaked documents because there are so many. He and librettist Mark Doten used “evocative” keywords to search the trove.

Hearne, a member of the composition faculty at the University of Southern California who is also a vocalist, would then sing the words to find appropriate styles.

In “The Source,” vocalists sing portions of the leaked documents, as well as parts of a chat log between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo.

At the same time, video screens display the faces of people watching and reacting to a video of a strike that killed civilians in Iraq.

Hearne’s edgy score draws on his fascination with sampling as well as hip hop and R&B. In part of the piece, the vocals are run through an electronic circuit, providing additional atmosphere.

After its 2014 premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Times called “The Source” a “21st century masterpiece.”

Last year, when it was performed in Los Angeles during the election, audience reaction was different, Hearne says, because “WikiLeaks had gone from darling of the left to persona non grata for its role in the release of the DNC emails.”

Manning’s 35-year espionage sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama shortly before he left office in January. Hearne says “The Source” won’t be updated to reflect that.

He adds, “I would love to have her see the show.”

The Source
Presented by San Francisco Opera Lab
Where: Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and March 1-3, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $35
Contact: (415) 864-3330,

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