Vessel : An Opera Epic by Meredith Monk June 1972

Submitted by root on Tue, 12/04/2012 - 14:28

Meredith adn members of the Comapny dressed for Vessle Part 3 Meredith Monk and her Company "The House" (founded in 1968 with the intention to explore interdisciplinary work), came to the Blackie for two weeks in June 1972.  The House - technical director Madeline Slovenz, performers Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, and American artists Blondell Cummings, Martin Gleitsman, Haan, Lanny Harrison, Jerie Ketler, Mark Monstermaker, Monica Moseley, Coco Pekelis, John Smead, Daniel Ira Sverdlik and Linn Varney - brought with them the arts of dance, sculpture, film, calligraphy, comedy, fashion, music,  20th century technology and above all the art of using the voice.  Whilst  here, Meredith and Ping Chong, gave a "Raw Recital"; Meredith performed "Education Of The Girl Child"; and  Meredith and The House performed 'Vessel An Opera Epic".

Above Picure of Michael Monstermaker, Meredith Monk and Lanny Harrison in costume, on the site of 'Vessel Part  Three'.  

In addition to performing their own work the visitors also came to our Soul Disco where Blondell Cummings (House member and a Black American) was able to wow the kids with her dancing and her nose ring. They looked in on the playschemes (many of the youngsters took part in the performance of 'Vessel' and helped Mark Monster maker create the dragon for Part 3).  They played a  Rescue f Game with us as part of our weekly staff games.  Meredith ran 8 workshops in voice, body and mind control for the House and Blackie staff and Blackie regulers. Mark Monstermaker showed his films. And Meredith and Ping cooked an American Chinese meal.  It was in fact the kind of visit  to which we aspire for all visiting artists.

This page covers 'Vessel'. The subject  of 'Vessel' is Joan of Arc. The work is in three related parts which took place in three different locations. At the Blackie, Part 1: 'Overture Open House' took place in the Basement Studio; Part 2: 'Handmade Mountain', took place in the old Main Auditorium; and Part 3: 'Existent Lot', in the disused British Rail Goods Depot, Park Lane.

The way in which the three sections link together is through a complex mix of  imagery and people. So the same characters, or versions of the same characters, appear in all three parts and equally the same activities, or versions of those activities, appear in all three parts.

Part 1: Overture Open House

Part 1 started in darkness - the audience were led in - they could see little but could hear a female voice telling a story.  As people's eyes adjusted to the darkness they could sense rather than see that the area was populated by seated figures, then a match flared and the darkness was broken by the light of a candle. An accordianist started playing and Meredith sang.  More lights appeared showing a living area with chairs, standard lamp, mattress, rug, etc. People in black costumes were sitting in the chairs, couple were lying on the mattress. The black dressed figure were performing slowly and deliberatly tiny actions with their hands.   

Person in black seated below the standard lampmPerson in black seated on a mattressPerson in black with old fashioned bonnet and coat

   Couple on the mattress

black coatumed peole making arn and arm movemnets

Pictures of black costumed House People.  We have no pictures of Part 1 during performance these are all taken from rehearsals.

One by one the black costumed figures disappeared and returned in coloured costumes to perform under a single light bulb (which they could turn on and off by a pull cord) extravagant gestures.  So a man in a suit and bowler hat returned draped in a red cloak (a cardinal or king?) and recited the opening of the Paternoster in French and threw money on the floor.  A bearded woman came and raked up the money.

Pioneers, men, women and youngsters, appeared and travelled across the space - stopping to rest and play music.  They were followed by a man scattering ashes.  Meredith declaimed a speech from Shaw's St Joan, and then whispered the same speech. The black garbed House People lined up and one after another repeated a movement sequence with rising frenzy until stopped by The Host.

Part 1 finished with the White Lady bathed in light facing the audience whilst Meredith sang.

As the above description shows Meredith's work is not straightforward. One of the things that helped provide a context for the audience was the programme which named the characters.

Part 1 The cast in order of appearance

Narrator                : Lanny Harrrison

Host                      : Ping Chong

Sign                      : Jerie Kelter, Linn Varney

Joan's Voice          : Meredith Monk

Accordian              : John Smead

House People        : Lanny Harrison, Daniel Ira Sverdlik,

                             : Judy Bates, Haan, Mark Monstermaker,

                             : Blondell Cummings, Monica Moseley

Androgyne             : Coco Pekelis, Martin Gleitsman 

Pioneers                : Jerie Kelter, Robin Harries, Sandra

                                Armstrong, Rona Sharp, Marielise

                                Riollano, Marcia Rock, Thomas Branch,

                                Ronni O' Donoghue, Roland Shannon.

                                Marie-Paul Burte, Brenda Suku, 

                                Matthew Ignacio

Waterfall              :  Marcia Rock

Soldiers                :  John Smead, Maerielise Riollano

White Lady           :  Lanny Harrison          

At the end of the performance the audience were led out of the darkness and upstairs to the main auditorium where they found 'The Hand Made Mountain'.

Part 2 The Handmade Mountain

Part 2 took place in the old auditorium.  The mountain was created by draping white material from the organ across the pulpit and its surrounds. It contained places where the Mountain People could 'live' and perform their specific roles.

Along the right hand side of the mountain there was a line of courtiers perched on a plank.

Picture of the Man Made Mountain at the start of Part 2

The Mountain People were spread out across the Mountain - they performed tasks - The Mountain people at work from cooking in a wok to calligraphy.  The characters in black in Part 1 are now brightly clothed. The King and Queen stumbled in telling goofy jokes and introduce their grandparents  - crazy tourists taking pictures of each other.  There was a clumsy Juggler. The Mountain People communicated using musical calls.  The couriers cackled and pointed. 

Pictue of cast in rehearsal for part 2 - the courtiers here sit on the front of the stage - in performance they ended up sitting at the right hand side of the stage.

The atmosphere was that of a court both regal and judicial. Joan's Inquistor Bishop Cauchon was played by two people (a man and a woman) who took turns to toss inane questions and statements into space. In this almost Disney scene Meredith as Joan sang her own reality.

Two people playing Bishop Cauchon overlook the trialBishop Cauchon played by Coco  Pekellisi and Martin Gleitsman in their Mountain home overlook the Trial

 Meredith as Joan singsJoan sings

Meredith as Joan sings her final response at the end of Part Two

Part 2 The Cast in order of appearance

Sleepers             : Bill Harpe, Marcia Rock, Sally Morris

Sign                   : Jerie Kelter, Linn Varney

Narrator             : Lanny Harrison

Joan's Voice       : Meredith Monk 

Time                  : Linn Varney

Dulcimer            : John Smead

Traveller            : Daniel Ira Sverdlik

Mountain People : Lanny Harrison, Ping Chong, Haan,

                         : Monica Moseley, Judy Bates,  Blondell

                            Cummings, Mark Monstermaker  

Green                : Coco Pekelin, Martin Gleaitsman,

                         : Sally Morris, Jerie Kelter, John Smead

Court/Jury          : Bill Harpe, Sandra Armstrong, 

                         : Marcia rock, Martin Brehms, Marialise

                           Riollano, Howard Steel,  Maria-Paul

                           Burte, Thomas Branch, Rona Sharp

Juggler               : Sally Morris

Pierre Cauchon    : Martin Gleitsman

Pierre Cauchon    : Coco Pekellis

Climber/Cleaner   : John Smead

Joan                    : Meredith Monk

Waterfall              : Jerie Kelter, Marcia Rock. Sandra

                             Armstrong, Maria Riollano,  Martin

                             Brehms, Thomas Branch,

White                   : Monic Moseley, Coco Pekellis,

                           : Haan, Lanny Harrison, Ping Chong

                           : Meredith Monk

Pale Trio               : Roland Shannon, Jean Sharp, Jack Jones

Executioner           : Robin Harries


Parts 1 & 2 took place on two consecutive nights, Part 3 took place on the third night.

Part 3  Existent Lot.

Part 3 started with the audience and cast assembling at the Blackie at 9.30pm and walking along Great George Street to the disused railway sidings in Park Lane.  It took place late at night so as to achieve the lighting effects. We have very few photos of the actual performance but do have some of rehearsals.

Audience and performers assmble outside the Bblackie Audience andcast walk towards the railway siding

The Performers and audience assmble and progress along Great George Street to the Railway siding.

Once the audience had arrived and gathered food and drink they sat on logs, blankets, or stood. The performance was staged against the long brick wall which made up one side of the space.  There were tunnels at each end of the field

The audience for Vessel Part 3

Lighting was provided by hand held sun lamps, the headlights of motor cyclists, and the sparks from arc welding.

Vessel Part 3 contained the same elements as Parts 1 & 2 but as dictated by the space on a larger scale. So the the opposing forces present at Joan's trial were representeed by two armies one of Kazoos and one of Penny Whistles - who marched across the space.  

 The Court was made up of youngsters who spent several days rehearsing in both sun and rain.  

The youngsters who make up the court in rehearsal Ping rehearsing the Court in the rain

Teh Pale trio at the start of Vessel part 3

Part 3 started with the Pale Trio centre stage with two armies curled up singing soundlessly.

Then the field is full of action - the Pioneers with their hoes and rake rise up from their camp fire and move across the field, the dragon dancers swirl round the site, the members of The House, in black as in Part One, carry out their own specific actions from playing the Trombone to leading the armies.


 The dragon dance in Part3 of VesselThe Trombonist

Daniel dressed for Part 3The Pioneers

The armies advance and then retreat without fighting, and between them stands a small figure singing child-like sounds with incredible intensity. The characters from all over the field move towards the voice, and gather together as tightly as they can.  They add their own voices to Joan's.   

Then out of the tunnels roar 5 motor bikes - their headlghts cut the darkness - they ride round the group who huddle together and then accelerate away. Then someone start to follow the bikes and the others begin running and stopping, running and stopping until they are led right out of the field.   

Motor cyclist  

One of the motor cyclists who rode out of the tunnels

 Meredith in silver armour dances alone in front of the sparks cast by an arc welder. This is the only light left and Meredith dancers her death until she becomes still - then the light from the welding goes out.  

Part 3 The Cast in order of appearanceCast 

Pale Trio                  : Roland Shannon,  Jean     Sharp, Jack Jones

Screamers                : John Smead, Ping Chong

Sign                          : Jerie Kelter, Linn Varney

Narrator                    : Lanny Harrison, Meredith Monk

Joan's Voice             : Meredith Monk

Horn                          : Martin Gleitsman

Pioneers                   : Jan Noordman, Denis Byrne, Ronni

                                   O' Donaghue, Edmond Wright, Kieran Wright,

                                 : Brenda Suku, Terry and Mike Moynihan, 

                                 : Tommy Ignacio, Denis Reitdyk, Jim Stewart,

                                : Nick Morgan, Sally Morris

House People          : Lanny Harrison, Monica Moseley,  Haan,

                               : Mark Monstermarker, Blondell Cummings

                               : Judy Bates, Daniel Ira Sverdlik

Children's Court      : Janet Rowan, Marielise Riollano, Ann Segar,

                               : Margaret Segar, Gillain Calderhead, Tina Rice,

                               : Pat Moynihan, Jacqueline Taylor, Jean Ellison


                               : David Bassi, Maria Riollano, Geoff Haslam

Kookoos                 :  Irene Amery, Rona sharp, Marcia Rock

                               : Jerie Kelter, Coco Pekelis, Sally Morris

                               : Robin Harries, Sandra Armstrong,  Martin Brehms

Kazoo Army             :  Maria Richards, Thersea Stafford. Nick Green,                 

                                : Jym MacRitchie,  Roger Hayward, David Ward,

                                : Sarah Webb, Angela O' Connor, Jacqueline

                                  Downey, Julie Farrell, Angela Walsh, Glenn

                                  Hurstfield, Malcolm Mansfield, Bryan Williams,

                                : Norman Farricker, Thomas James Branch

Pennywhistle Army   : Anne Linton, Carolyn Stewart,  Lesley

                                   Grinstead, Pete Brewer,  Maria-Paul

                                   Burte, Fanchon Frolich

Generals of the 

Two armies               : Lanny Harrison, Monic Moseley

Torch                        : Jerie Kelter

Motorcycles              : Donald and Viv button, Rick Fitzpatrick

Joan                         : Meredith monk

Fire                           : Wendy the Welder.  

Technical :

The technical requirements of Vessel were complex, and required imagination to produce the effects that Meredith required particularly in terms of lighting. For instance in Part One the only light was to be provided by a candle, a standard lamp, a match being struck and some low level stage lights. So important was the lighting to the effect needed that there could be no house lights or emergency lights. We solved this by running all the electrics for Part One from a generator placed outside of the building - so the stage lights and the emergency lighting were one and the same!

The Blackie provided a very different environment from the Loft in New York where Vessel was first performed.  So the Handmade Mountain had to be designed and then built within the Main Auditorium - and indeed we built it, took it down for the perfomance and videoing of  Education of The Girl Child, and then rebuilt it.  

We had to find a space suitable for Part 3 and then work out how to add sufficient light on a site where there was only the light cast from off site street lighting.

And we had to following a very complex lighting script with the somewhat limited resources of the Blackie.

We were fortunate that they arrived with a Technical Director and it was both a challenging and fun collaboration.  

The Production Team

Technical Director  The House :  Madelaine Slovena

Technical Director  The Blackie :  Wendy Harpe

Technical Set-up : Chris Furby, Stephen Knox, John  Steadman

Props : Ping Chong, Sandra Armstrong

Mountain Architecture : John Smead  

Assisted by : Paul Brown and Chris Furby 

Monster : Mark Monstermaker assisted by the  Saturday play group

Production Direction : Bill Harpe, Dave Rickus

Assisted by : Mowbray  Bates, Martin Brehms, Peter Eyo, Ed George, Howard Steel, Dave Ward

Publicity and Personel : Sally Morris, Sandra Armstrong, Chris Mead, Marcia Rock,  Sue Adams, Mary Kay Giblin.    


It is difficult to classify Meredith's work, she is primarily known for her work as a musician. Indeed her use of her own voice is unique, and Vessel is an epic opera so the importance of the voice singing in her work is indisputable.  However Meredith herself has said, " I make live movies" and  "I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theatre becomes cinema."  And that is also true.