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Opinion Published 26 October 2011

Popstar to Operastar

“Everybody was doing it and we didn’t know what it was.”

Robert Barry

Last week saw the opening of a new opera by Karen O. Yes, that Karen O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist, number 3 in Spinner magazine’s list of “Women Who Rock Right Now” (back when “Right Now” was “2007”, and “Rock” was “strut about in designer spandex yelping a lot”). Stop the Virgens is described by its venue, the St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (where else?) as “An assault on the tragic joys of youth, fever dreams drenched in visual seduction”.

What this seems to translate roughly into is thirty chalk-faced chorus girls in tattered prom dresses writhing ecstatically as Ms. O breathily narrates an undoubtedly cathartic tale of her own lost innocence. According to one eye witness the main thing that distinguished the opening night from a traditional rock gig was the paucity of live tweeters and amateur photographers.

This is not the first time that – at the very least some idea of – opera has breached the boundaries of New York’s trendier zip codes. Laurie Anderson recalls that, back in the heyday of punk rock, every third person you’d bump into ‘Downtown’ would claim to be working on an opera. “It was weird,” she remembers, wistfully, “you would be walking down the street and go, how’s your opera? Mine’s fine, how’s yours? Everybody was doing it and we didn’t know what it was.”

This was the era of Philip Glass’s decomposed Gesamtkunstwerk, Einstein on the Beach (“only technically an opera” admitted its composer, in as much as “the only place you could do it was an opera house”); of the cool medialogues of Robert Ashley; and of Morton Feldman’s frankly incomprehensible Samuel Beckett collaboration, Neither. Anderson herself makes an unlikely opera diva – her voice digitally lowered by vocoders rather than surgically raised by castration like her baroque forebears.

Back to the present day, Q magazine, that bastion of musical progressivism, has predictably accused Karen O of doing “a Damon Albarn”. But in an era which sees ageing diva Rufus Wainwright writing an opera (in French!) about an ageing diva, and even Carl Barat, last seen embarrassing everyone concerned as Gene Vincent in a Joe Meek biopic, now confirmed to tread the Paris stage in a performance of Monteverdi’s late masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea; all of a sudden Popstar to Operastar is starting to sound less like the nadir of a trend begun – inauspiciously enough – with It’s a Knockout, and more like a glimpse into the thought processes of every indie has-been en route to the end of the pier revival circuit.

My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of this sort of thing. Now that common consensus has judged that the album, official home of the significant rock statement since 1967, has been rendered technologically obsolete by the actions of a handful of Ayn Rand-obsessed Silicon Valley bedwetters, pop people with Important Things to Say will be looking for an outlet. The more tech-savvy may follow Bjork and Brian Eno in seeing the future in that liquid crystal ball, the iPad; but for those artists who still find in the word something appreciably distinct from the purview of marketing men, Wagner’s old ‘artwork of the future’ may promise to be just that.

Who could be next to take up the gauntlet is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Thom Yorke is about to show us his lighter side with a Mozartean dramma giocoso based on the life of syphilitic Italian mathematician, Hieronymus Fracastorius; or maybe Johnny from Menswe@r is on the verge of displaying the kind of gravitas we had all hitherto expected of him with a four-part bühnenweihfestspiel set amongst the decadent plague years of the Primrose Hill set. Only time will tell.

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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