Robert Ashley's PERFECT LIVES

Robert Ashley's video opera about bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, et al, in the American midwest. One of the definitive text-sound compositions of the late 20th century. It has been called a comic opera about reincarnation. "Who needs the Bible? We have PERFECT LIVES." - John Cage.

At the center of PERFECT LIVES is the hypnotic voice of Robert Ashley. His continuous song narrates the events of the story and describes a 1980's update of the mythology of small town America. PERFECT LIVES is populated with myriad characters revolving around two musicians—"R," the singer of myth and legend, and his friend, Buddy, "The World's Greatest Piano Player." They have come to a small town in the Midwest to entertain at the PERFECT LIVES Lounge. As Robert Ashley describes in the opera synopsis, "they fall in with two locals 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'." The eloping couple, Ed and Gwyn, the old people at the home, the sheriff and his wife (Will and Ida) who finally unravel the mystery, and Isolde who watches the celebration of the changing of the light at sundown from the doorway of her mother's house are some of the characters who journey through the seven episodes of the opera. Derived from a colloquial idiom, PERFECT LIVES transforms familiar material into an elaborate metaphor for the rebirth of the human soul. It has been called a comic opera about reincarnation.

Robert Ashley's opera-for-television projects and other large scale narrative works have brought him international renown as a composer and as a writer. He has influenced a generation of composers and artists working with new forms of music for the media. PERFECT LIVES was commissioned by the Kitchen (NYC) in 1978. Since its premiere on Great Britain's Channel Four in 1984 it has been broadcast throughout Europe and in various cities in the United States.

Complete seven-part opera on 2 videocassettes. VHS/NTSC. (1984) (181 minutes). Video by John Sanborn. Robert Ashley, solo voice; Jill Kroesen & David Van Tieghem, chorus; "Blue" Gene Tyranny, keyboards; David Van Tieghem, non-keyboard percussion; Peter Gordon, music producer; Paul Shorr, soundtrack producer; Dean Winkler, video synthesis and video tape editor; Mary Perillo, associate director/producer; Jacqueline Humbert, costumes; Carlota Schoolman, producer for The Kitchen.


an opera for television by ROBERT ASHLEY


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), 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 (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 "The Bank has 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; Ida is her mother) to report an 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 dogfight 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 for opera at first sight because of Buddy, who because of his fancy style of dress is often mistaken for a foreigner ("There's no doubt the Mexican is in it. The doubt is that he's Mexican.") That was at 12:45 PM ("remember that!") And in The Bank at that time are Helen and John, innocent bystanders from 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 salesmen say, but Boogie Woogie she is not.") studying the video tapes (THE LESSONS) that Buddy takes around with him and distributes at the local music store wherever he is playing. 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 speed traps, elopements, true signatures and the like"), and who recognizes in Gwyn something so urgent ("and why is the Bride-to-be so—uhn—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 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.


An opera for television by Robert Ashley

ROBERT ASHLEY as "R" (The Narrator)
"BLUE" GENE TYRANNY as Buddy (The World's Greatest Piano Player)
DAVID VAN TIEGHEM as "D" (The Captain of The Football Team)

Produced in collaboration with CARLOTA SCHOOLMAN for THE KITCHEN (New York City) in association with CHANNEL FOUR (Great Britain).

Television Director—JOHN SANBORN

Instrumental music beds composed in collaboration with "BLUE" GENE TYRANNY and PETER GORDON

Music produced in collaboration with PAUL SHORR

Video image processing—DEAN WINKLER and JOHN SANBORN

Associate director—MARY PERILLO

Videotape editor—DEAN WINKLER

Piano solos and electronic keyboard parts composed by "BLUE" GENE TYRANNY

Piano solos based on harmonic progressions by "BLUE" GENE TYRANNY

Pre-recorded chorus voices: JILL KROESEN and DAVID VAN TIEGHEM and REBECCA ARMSTRONG (The Supermarket)

Costumes and make-up by JACQUELINE HUMBERT

Piano landscape-mirrors and color design by MARY ASHLEY

Synchronous sound recorded by PAUL SHORR

Audio engineer: Joshua Harris

Rhythm templates derived from the "Palace" organ, courtesy of Gulbransen Organ Co. (CBS Musical Instruments)

Personal management for Robert Ashley by PERFORMING ARTSERVICES, INC.

Television production made possible in part by grants from: the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Beards Fund

Special thanks to Pierre Audi and The Almeida Theater (London)

Perfect Lives was commissioned for television by THE KITCHEN—Mary MacArthur Griffin, Director, Carlota Schoolman, Television Producer

Written and created for television by ROBERT ASHLEY

copyright (c) (P) Robert Ashley, 1983

PERFECT LIVES was developed musically through live performances in Europe and America, booked and managed by Performing Artservices, Inc. "Blue" Gene Tyranny was Ashley's first collaborator -- his keyboard melodies and harmonies define the character of Buddy. Tyranny and Ashley performed a chamber version of the piece many times together (including at The Kitchen in dearly 1978). Shortly after, The Kitchen commissioned PERFECT LIVES as an opera for television, the live version expanded to include richly layered orchestral tapes produced by composer Peter Gordon, and the singing of Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem. In 1980, John Sanborn recorded the basic video tracks on location in Illinois according to the templates provided by Ashley's score. From this material, THE LESSONS, a preview version of the opera (based on keyboard gestures by "Blue" Gene Tyranny) was produced through the TV Lab at WNET.

In the fall of 1982, a pre-sale was obtained from Channel Four Television in Great Britain, making possible the completion of PERFECT LIVES. John Sanborn, the television director, designed an elaborate shooting and editing plan for the visual elements of Ashley's score. The post-production was completed this August (1983) at VCA Teletronics, under the supervision of Dean Winkler, who worked with Sanborn on image processing and was the videotape editor.

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"The collaborative aspect of the work follows principles I have used for many years in search of a new operatic style. The collaborators are given almost absolute freedom to develop characterizations from the textual and musical materials I provide. The musical and visual materials are coordinated through 'templates', a term I have come to use to describe the subjective assignment of emotional values and moods to visual forms and corresponding musical structures. Within the rules defined by the 'templates' the collaborators in all aspects of the work are free to interpret, 'improvise', invent and superimpose characteristics of their own artistic styles onto the texture of the work. In essence, the collaborators become 'characters' in the opera at a deeper level than the illusionistic characters who appear on stage."
—Robert Ashley