April 2006

Arts & Letters

‘Flight and Here Lies Love’ at the Adelaide Festival of Arts

By Dennis Altman

The program of almost any major opera company reveals a repertoire largely unchanged for over a century: there are more likely to be productions of works by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini than even such mid-twentieth-century works as The Rake’s Progress (1951) or Peter Grimes (1945). A few companies, such as London’s Almeida and the Houston Grand Opera, regularly present contemporary operas, but few of them attract audiences in the way that the latest theatrical offering might. By contrast, theatre companies regularly revive ‘the classics’ but, other than specialist ones such as the Bell Shakespeare Company, they are unlikely to produce season after season of dead authors’ plays.

Nor is the appeal of classical opera only confined to the elderly and the affluent: exciting productions such as Simone Young’s Der Rosenkavalier have attracted youthful audiences. Imaginative directors restage Mozart or Verdi in contemporary styles – Peter Sellars has set a series of Mozart’s operas in present-day Manhattan – and audiences flock to them. A recent production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in Bangkok changed the opera’s setting to a modern Asian metropolis, a contemporary image of Valhalla. An opera first produced almost a hundred and fifty years ago was seen by the media as relevant to the current political turmoil of Thailand.

There are two stock answers to why contemporary opera doesn’t fare as well. One is that composers have lost the art of writing music that appeals on first hearing, as almost all great operatic music does. The other, and I suspect more serious one, is that the musical is the major form of contemporary opera, and that ‘musicals’ such as Sondheim’s Follies or Sweeney Todd are just as worthy of the title ‘opera’ as are works such as Mozart’s Magic Flute, let alone the comic operas of Donizetti or Offenbach. The continuum is not new – The Magic Flute was written for a popular audience – and it is increasingly acknowledged in Broadway tributes to opera, whether it be La Bohème rewritten as Rent or Elton John’s attempt – brave and ultimately awful – to rewrite Aida. Einstein on the Beach or Batavia may be staged in the Opera House while Les Miserables or Chess fills commercial theatres, yet the distinction between opera and musical is more a matter of convention and audience expectation than any essential differences.

For the first two acts the Glyndebourne Opera Company’s production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight seems like a musical version of those reality-television shows that follow the trials and tribulations of airport staff and passengers. The opera is set in an airport terminal that is closed because of a storm, allowing for musical and theatrical effects that echo both Nixon in China and Miss Saigon, and also creating the excuse for a small group of strangers to become involved with each other’s lives, presided over by the Controller (Mary Hegarty) from a box above the waiting area. This could too easily mean the triumph of setting over plot, but several of the characters, especially the Refugee (sung hauntingly by countertenor David Walker) and the Older Woman (Nuala Willis), take on sufficient life to engage our concern.

Jonathan Dove is too good a composer to be ignored, and he creates moments of genuine emotion, such as the Refugee’s aria in the last act. The music is both accessible to an audience that is unfamiliar with the operatic canon and has sufficient references to the canon to satisfy opera snobs. But ultimately Flight fails because it hovers uneasily between comedy and melodrama, without the strong emotional narrative that would leave the audience feeling it had undergone some sort of catharsis. The librettist, April de Angelis, is quoted as saying an opera needs three acts, but this makes sense only if it sets up a major conflict and resolves it – either through death, marriage or at least major reconciliation.

Flight is fun to watch, but perhaps in the end it attempts too much; in practical terms I’d have focused the story more directly on the Refugee and had one interval, rather than two, which might have meant fewer people left before the end.

Opera is currently enjoying a mainstream revival: boy bands meet Verdi in groups like Il Divo, and operatic music is mined for television commercials. At the same time popular music is taking on operatic themes, as in David Byrne’s new ‘song cycle’ Here Lies Love, a joint commission of the Adelaide and Liverpool festivals. Although Byrne envisages the work as a cabaret piece, it is clearly meant to have dramatic unity, and the New York director Marianne Weems, whose multimedia piece Aladeen was a highpoint of the Melbourne Festival in 2004, is scheduled to direct it when it comes to fruition.

In Adelaide Here Lies Love was a work in progress, and there was an appealing confusion about the placement of microphones and whether Byrne should switch guitars, rather in the manner a losing tennis star might swap rackets. The three singers – Dana Diaz-Tutaan, Ganda Suthivarakom and Byrne – were on stage with four musicians, backed by occasional video montages from the period of Marcos’s presidency, while most of the audience stood, drank, shuffled and almost danced in one of the smaller halls of the showground. The music, as is true of most of Byrne’s work, was rhythmic and catchy disco-rock, with little evidence of the contribution of his elusive collaborator Fatboy Slim.

Byrne is a charming man, a talented musician, and someone whose previous work, beginning with the group Talking Heads and ranging across music, dance and film, I have enjoyed enormously. On the evidence of this show he is also politically naive, and his desire to show the human side of Imelda succeeds in obfuscating the cruel and authoritarian regime of the Marcoses in favour of a sentimentality I suspect most Filipinos would find as offensive as the caricatures of the rich play-girl Byrne says he wished to avoid.

The theatrical connection here is to the musical Evita, and there are some clear parallels between the lives of Imelda and Eva Peron, even if Eva had the good judgment to die while her husband was still in power. But Tim Rice, the librettist of Evita, made Che Guevara the major commentator on the romance between the Perons, thus allowing an ongoing political commentary as Eva, like Imelda, progressed from small-town girl to international show pony. Byrne has sought to balance Imelda with her former nursemaid, Estrella Cumpas, which allows only for maudlin sentimentality, and removes almost all the historical context.

This is not to take the Stalinist view that all art must have a political message, but an apolitical portrait of Imelda makes as much sense as would one of Lady Macbeth. The combination of music and theatre is a powerful means for conveying political and emotional feelings. To characterise the brutality of the Marcos period as “a bit of excess”, as Byrne did in one interview, is to invite criticism.

The common question about opera is whether words or music come first (this is the basis of Strauss’s Capriccio). Whichever the answer, opera cannot work without extraordinary music and dramatic situations that allow the music to appeal emotionally: the actual words of Fidelio, Don Giovanni or Madame Butterfly are much less significant than the political and personal emotions conveyed. But musicals also do this: most people know Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which is surely as much an ‘opera’ as most in the repertoire of the AO. Both Flight and Here Lies Love fail to meet the ultimate test, namely, to send us from the theatre with a sense that our picture of the world has been upset and challenged.

Not surprisingly, the audience for Flight was older and more sedate than that for Here Lies Love; the former came to attend ‘opera’, and the latter was drawn by the promise of an evening of post-rock. But one of the singers in Here Lies Love, Dana Diaz-Tutaan, is classically trained, and Nuala Willis is a cabaret singer. The great advantage of a festival such as Adelaide’s is that it allows us to cross the conventional divisions between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music, which are created by commerce, education and sheer snobbery. It reminds us that musical theatre thrives precisely when it breaks down the divide between Glyndebourne and the showground.

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman is vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books include Queer Wars and Death in the Sauna.

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