I am not a reviewer I am a musician. And it was as a musician that I went to see Karen O's new opera "Stop the Virgens" that debuted last night at St. Ann's Warehouse. Anyone who is taking non-mainstream popular music and putting it in a theatrical setting has my attention and I applaud the work for walking that very tricky and unfriendly territory.
1. a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes. (source)
For the most part the piece lives up to this broad definition. For all intents and purposes StV is a staged concept album, but I'm sure no marketing department would ever agree to call it that. So in short: Who cares if it's an opera? For me the music didn't tell the story, but I didn't need it to. The bodies lights and costumes did tell a story in their own fragmented and psychedelic way. But the lack of substantial connective tissue between the narrative and the music is why it really didn't feel much like an opera. But I happen to think music does better in theater as extra-dimensional to the story. So it didn't bother me. The music seemed to draw its own emotional plot in parallel.
Here are some things I noticed while watching...
1. It felt more like a 70 minute live music video than anything else. And isn't the music video the most viable and popular dramatization of music for our time?
2. The piece was about virginity, innocence, being devoured, corrupted, commodified, abused, cannibalized. And then ultimately about drinking the kool-aid. It wasn't offering any help or advice. It was just trying to draw you in and remind you of these traumas.
3. It is no longer enough to make an album. That is too easy and commonplace. A new metric for a musician is the visual and performative language they employ.
4. There were two main characters in this opera: Karen O's voice and Karen O's costumes.
5. The outlandish costumes will be inevitably compared to Lady Gaga and even Bjork. I have nothing else to say about fashion.
6. There were about 30 chorus members (presumably the virgins). They were all young females in chalky white makeup, choppy white wigs and what looked like cut up white graduation gowns. 7 Dancer/Chorus members who writhed and cavorted for most of the piece and then two Dark Queen archetypes who lorded over the "virgens."
7. There was a suprising doo-wop feeling to much of the music which came through when the 30 chorus members were all oohing and ahhing. (there was even a 6/8 ballad)
8. I was struck by how few people I saw taking photos, texting or tweeting. That was what made it really not feel like a rock concert. (this was by decree of the theater)
9. One of the most compelling moments was when Karen O's voice cracked ever so slightly towards the end of the show. This and the curtain call were the only moments where some of her endearing vulnerability peeked out from behind her carefully crafted ice virgin/mother/queen/angel character.
10. I missed Brian Chase's drum set playing. He mostly played tambourine and snare drum.
11. Even though there were close to 50 performers on stage Karen O sang the lead vocal part on every song. This made it really feel like a Karen O concert and not an opera.
12. Karen O's voice was exquisite, the vocal arrangements in the chorus were elegant and the momentary cacophonies were pretty interesting. Most interesting was the beginning when the chorus members are all singing antiphonally. Admittedly I'm a sucker for big groups of singers using their voices as texture and singing off mic.
13. I just read in Scott Miller's history of musical theater that he thinks rock music is too repetitive and lacking in complexity to work well as a conduit for high drama. Perhaps concert music isn't repetitive, distorted and overstimulating enough to reflect the changing architecture of our brains in the information age. There was drama happening in this piece. It was just going on in relationship to its own particular form. If you looked for plot and character where you typically find them in opera or musical theater you might've left sorely disappointed. If you looked for the story in the dusty faces of the chorus members wandering through the audience or in the layered fabrics of the costumes you might find something to hang onto.
14. I'm happy that she took the chance on doing this show even though she might have to bear the slings and arrows of the skeptical. People get mad when you take a great big label like opera and bend it to your will.