Proof that opera is the most accommodating of art forms and one that retains the power to surprise and shock comes in the curiously compelling shape of Jennifer Walshe’s black, brutal and biting satire XXX_Live_Nude_Girls!!!
Loosely based on Aristophane’s Lysistrata – in which women attempt to persuade their men away from violence, in this case the Peloponnesian War, by withholding sex from them – Walshe’s half-hour-long opera, although more agitprop music theatre than opera, is as compact as a clenched fist and packs just as powerful a punch.
Taking its theatrical prompt from the tradition of marionette opera production, Walshe’s characters are depicted by iconic children’s dolls Barbie and Cindy, and their plastic male companions. These are employed, as the composer told Bob Gilmore in the August/September 2007 issue of this journal, as a ‘blank plastic canvas with a perma-smile onto which little girls can project many different things’.
Set in a large doll’s house with the miniature mannequins conspicuously manipulated by puppeteers, XXX_Live_Nude_Girls!!! proves to be a remarkably subversive commentary on consumerism, glamour, the sexual objectification of women and young girls, domestic violence and, engagingly enough, on the conflicted mores of opera itself.
This DVD release is taken from performances in November 2003 at Vienna’s Konzerthaus Neuer Saal, shortly after the work’s premiere in Dresden. Using split-screen perspective throughout, it is a darkly playful and playfully dangerous work that initially bemuses and bewilders before its artificial conceit suddenly acquires compulsive reality. By the time of the third act’s violent rape scene – played out with a startlingly graphic viscerality chillingly counterpointed by music of harmonium-like gaiety – there can be no doubt that we are no longer in Toy Town.
The choreography of the dolls, fumbling, coarse and rough, offers an unflattering mirror of children at play; children who are untutored in, unaware of, or simply unwilling to engage in the finessed proprieties of socially-constricted adult behaviour. Drawn from interviews with children and adults, Walshe’s libretto is a half-heard jumble of half-understood discourses that boil over with flailing juvenile discontent and fearsome adult violence. She herself says that it resembles a television script more than a conventional opera text.
The score is no less deliberately rough-hewn and manhandled than the doll-actors. Apartment House – a quartet of trombone, clarinet, accordion and cello unseen on the DVD but scattered around the doll’s house on stage – are discretely virtuosic in delivering a score of fractured design and plosive intent; a coruscating commentary that draws on Walshe’s attraction to John Cage’s predilection for ‘sounds that aren’t considered “beautiful” in standard terms’.
The music foams and welters in the dark, the spoken contributions of Walshe herself and Ellen Aagaard dotting, denting and disrupting any literal sense of engagement that might accrue. Cage, whose uncomplicated aspiration for music was that it should be ‘simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living’, would have found much to admire in this complex and challenging work.
Published on 1 December 2009
Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.