STOP THE VIRGENS
May 30-June 3, 2012
Sydney Opera House
By BOB SHORT
Share The No Wave Generation of New York post punks (or whatever it is they called themselves) had few words of praise for their successors. Never one to spare the vitriol, Lydia Lunch was particularly scathing in her assessment of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Too pop. Too industry. Had it all way too easy. Blah, blah, blah.
Whatever mud was slung, Karen O and crew did manage one great album in "Fever to Tell". Albums two and three, however, drifted increasingly towards the law of diminishing returns. They weren't bad albums per se but lacked the razor sharp emotional intensity of songs like "Maps" or "Poor Song". It was almost as if Lunch's guttersniping had turned prophetic as the triple y generation sought inspiration in the unclean bowels of eighties pop; a flat and unappealing landscape littered with the spirits of shopping trolleys past. Where did those songs of devastation and hope go? Ah. Found them. Welcome to the newly coined genre of psycho opera, where the aforementioned Karen O seeks artistic credibility in the grown up world of the respectable artist.
I'm at the building with the big white sails for the Vivid festival. Someone is projecting the image of a giant trollop across its western facade. Despite the literal acre of flesh exposed, she remains unappealing. This fifty foot behemoth winks and rolls oafishly across white concrete before returning to the start of her less than arousing tape loop. Around the Harbour, other buildings are similarly transformed by lighting hi-jinks seemingly creating pastiches of video games best left forgotten. You'd have to be a fairly cynical sod not to "ooh" and "ah" as the bicycle fish pedal past and the Leviathan lurks beneath the waves. Are you talking to me? There's nobody else here.
It was here last year that Lou Reed carefully readjusted his reading glasses and studiously recreated Metal Machine Music, practiced his Tia Chi and probably plotted his forthcoming vengeance on the world (aka Lulu). This is serious art, ladies and gentlemen. You get government funding and corporate funding for this stuff. That's why we always have the rotten core of the Big Apple booking package when Manhattan begins to heat up for the summer. It's a long way to come but it's a pay cheque, Jack. This year, the divine Ms O is here to bring us her production of "Stop the Virgens" as previously seen exclusively at St Ann's Warehouse Brooklyn. The Spanish spelling of Virgen probably alludes to something Catholic that escapes me. I'm clearly just not smart enough to pick up on all the nuances. My experience of Opera suggests it is always about psychos so I am initially confused about what will be different about this production.
Upon entering the auditorium, the first thing I noticed was the virgens lounging autisticly (sic – I haven't misspelt artistically) around the place. Dressed in white, sporting identical blond wigs and heavily splattered in pancake makeup, they were either in your seat, on the floor in front of your seat or generally trying to make themselves tiresome as they stared at the house lights and generally emoed their way through the droning overture. I thought to myself that this might explain why Karen O wanted to stop them. If you finally got your chance to play the Sydney Opera House, the last thing you'd want is these dreary nymphs gumming up the works. Alas, I was mistaken. These ballet pump wearing refugees from NADA were, along with the refugees from a Greek Chorus who were handing out bits of paper, were somehow relevant to the plot. The rites of passage and menstrual symbolism led me to believe that, according to the gospel of Karen O, when a girl loses her virginity, it wanders off to haunt the Sydney Opera House. Given the social skills of these apparitions, I think their previous owners are probably better off without them. However, during the course of the evening O does manage to bring all this lost innocence under her wings for a grand reunification. Or something like that.
And therein lays the weakness of this production. It's easiest if I just run through the list of O's collaborators. She has two musical directors. Obviously dragging in fellow Yeah, Nick Zinner wasn't going to be enough to pull in the investors. Okay, they decided. How about they throw Sam Spiegel into the mix? He's Spike Jonze's brother and, on top of his DJ work, he has acquired quite a reputation for commercial composition. The guy has respect and he's Spike Jonze's brother. They went on to enlist some credible musicians for their musical ensemble like Beastie Boy collaborator Money Mark possibly because Spike Jonze did the Beasty Boys videos. Then they hired in whatever symphony extras they could find available on the night and some lesser known Jack White collaborators. That pretty much bought them up to speed on the musical side. For visuals, they thought they could always hook up with someone dependable - like Sophia Coppola and Spike Jonze's production designer K K Barrett. (Hell, the whole damn gang has got together for this one.) But what is missing from this list? Who is the writer? Is there a writer? No there is not.
Stop the Virgens is visually stunning. Fairytale forests of winter ghost trees set the stage for emotional apocalypse. Tremendous costumes riff off of cultural and religious archetypes. A Greek tragedy is promised but this particular tempest merely seeks a suitable teacup. Someone must have told them that a picture paints a thousand words and they figured that, with pictures this astonishing, why waste time and energy with exposition. Style beats down content and we are essentially left with the perfect nineteen eighties music video dragged kicking and screaming on to a stage for your admiration and adulation.
Expressive and tonally captivating, Karen O's voice is a true thing of beauty. Her stage presence is riveting . The songs at their worst are damn good with a couple of stunners thrown in to make the whole thing much more than worthwhile. There just isn't enough narrative (some would argue there isn't any) to justify the notion of Opera, psycho or otherwise. As far as I could make out, the spectres of virginity lost haunt poor Karen until she finally loses her virginity and is then able to reconcile with her haunters. Of course, I could be totally wrong. A girl in the row in front of me told her friend "Then she died for some reason but she came back to life, obviously."
A writer might have been able to tell Karen and company a little thing about story telling. Tips may have included words like "conflict", "story arcs" and "character development." Personally, I think the whole thing could have been improved enormously by getting hold of Julian Casablanca to play a kind of Pan/Devil/Seducer who woos poor Karen while the Virgins keep telling her not to go there. That would have been a corker.
On the plus side, the performance did reach a definite final satisfying crescendo. Unfortunately, this climax was somewhat diminished by a curtain call that seemed to go on for longer than the actual performance. Towards the end of the self congratulations, back patting and general Las Vegas shenanigans, I actually expected them to drag out the tea lady to show us how to dip the bag in the cup. But, look. It was worth seeing. If they release the soundtrack, I'll buy it. If it comes out on DVD... Hmmm. Maybe not.