Opera’s enfants terribles
Rockers go psycho (and electro) on the classic art.
Many opera singers have tried to broaden their appeal by turning to pop (see Renée Fleming’s uneven Dark Hope). Attempting the reverse presents even more of a challenge. But that hasn’t stopped members of the pop world from dipping their toes in the classic form. Recent trailblazers, for better or worse, include Elvis Costello, Damon Albarn and Stewart Copeland of the Police. Here are our top picks of the trend.
Antony Hegarty The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
Antony Hegarty (of Antony & The Johnsons) composed the music for, and performed in, Robert Wilson’s biographical opera about Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic. The thrilling and beautifully executed work kicked up a storm when it premiered at the Manchester International Festival last year.
The Knife Tomorrow, In a Year
The Swedish pop duo whipped up a characteristically atmospheric and spooky soundtrack for Ralf Richardt Strøbech and Kirsten Dehlholm’s “electro-opera,” which is based on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Commissioned by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma, the Knife (siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer) challenge conventional conceptions of the operatic form by using its bold and experimental score (performed by an opera singer, a pop singer and an actor) to create a world as seen through the eyes of the naturalist.
Karen O Stop the Virgens
Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer Karen O and hip production designer K.K. Barrett collaborated on a glam “psycho opera” in 2011. Pitched as “an assault on the tragic joys of youth and fever dreams drenched in visual seduction,” the darkly nutty multi-disciplinary piece features nine songs penned by the rocker and tells the story of a group of young virgins who engage in Dionysian rituals before ingesting a deadly amount of poisoned gumballs. Despite the wonderfully wacky efforts of costume designer Christian Joy, Karen O stole the show with her haunting vocals backed by bandmate Nick Zinner’s spiky guitar and a dissonant chorus of 40 white-clad “virgins.”
The gender outlaw’s last foray into theater was the übercamp Peaches Does Herself, a quasi-musical featuring exploding penises and enormous plastic vaginas. No wonder eyebrows were raised when the electronica icon announced that she’d be performing one of the first operas ever written, Monteverdi’s epic tale of Orpheus, alongside six professional opera singers. Staged for just six nights in Berlin in May, the work offered a “queer-emancipatory utopia against the paralyzing presence of death.” Peaches, being the badass she is, sang the entire work in Italian.
Rufus Wainwright Prima Donna
Despite having a successful batch of baroque pop albums under his belt, Wainwright’s lack of compositional and dramatic training ruffled the feathers of traditionalists when they heard the Met had commissioned the piece. Although the deal eventually went sour (the Met wanted the libretto in English, Wainwright wanted it in French), the pop prodigy triumphed. His unabashedly romantic opera, about a day in the life of an aging diva, finally received its opening night in Manchester, England, in 2009.
Rufus Wainwright plays the Vic Theatre Wednesday 8.