Earnest Absurdity

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The stage is lit with eerie blue and purple light. The music is tense and skittish. A crowd of French aristocrats looks on as two ghostly figures — the ghosts of Louis XVI and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, to be precise — draw swords in a fit of sexual jealousy. After considerable back and forth, the King gains the upper hand and plunges his sword into the body of Beaumarchais. There is a moment of stunned silence as the onlookers crane to see whether he's going to make it. And then, quite abruptly, Beaumarchais straightens up, pulls the sword out, and giddily proclaims "We're all dead!", whereupon the entire company break out in eerie, cackling laughter and begin stabbing each other with playful abandon. So it goes in Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano and William Hoffman's "grand opera buffa" which had its West-coast première last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The plot is convoluted, to put it mildly: The ghosts of the court of Louis XVI of France are loitering around the spectral ruins of Versailles, bored out of their minds. Marie Antoinette, however, is haunted by memories of her execution in the French Revolution, and can't quite join in the general mood of empty levity. To put her out of her malaise, Pierre de Beaumarchais — the real-life author of the Figaro plays that subsequently were turned into the much-beloved operas The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro — puts on an opera in the theatre of Versailles, an opera which he claims will alter history and keep Marie Antoinette from being executed in the first place.

Needless to say, this all goes quite awry. Beaumarchais's characters rebel against his intentions, leading him to enter his own show in an attempt to set things right. This fails spectacularly, and the boundaries between the opera and the opera-within-an-opera continue to dissolve until it's quite unclear where one ends and the other begins. Marie Antoinette re-lives her execution, but seems to find peace with these historical happenings by the end.

The LA Opera does a phenomenal job of holding all this together. It is a ferociously difficult score, for singers and players alike, but at no point did I get the sense that anyone was struggling to play their part; everything felt free-flowing and natural. The orchestra snapped cleanly from quarter-tone wailings to crisp, Mozartian textures, and, even in the most chaotic moments of overlapping polyphony, managed to keep the various textural layers from collapsing into a hopeless muddle. The cast, likewise, handled the vocal writing with aplomb; even the side characters were fully committed to acting their roles despite simultaneously having to navigate a labyrinth of tone clusters and glissandi. Robert Brubaker, who sang the villainous Bégearss, deserves special commendation in this regard: His Mahlerian "Aria of the Worm" [YouTube] in the first act would be enough to obliterate many singers' voices, but Brubaker showed no signs of flagging even in his final moments as the Revolution in the opera-within-an-opera degenerates into the Reign of Terror.

Similarly excellent are the technical aspects. The set, a distorted specter of Versailles, is appropriately disorienting, calling to mind the impossible geometries of an Escher print. The lights and costumes work excellently in tandem to clearly delineate the opera from the opera-within-an-opera — with the latter being full of color and life and the former being bleached and desolate — and likewise to underscore the collapse of this distinction in the second act. The supertitles altered or omitted a frustrating number of lines, but the singers' excellent diction usually made up for the loss, even in the top balcony where I was sitting.

That's the good. There's also the bad, some of which is due to the writing of the show. The worst stretch by far is the Turkish Embassy Scene that concludes the first act*. Several of the dozen-plus reviews that I've read (both of this production and earlier ones) have called out this scene, but only for its use of low-brow humor, which several commentators think is at odds with the general tenor of the show as a whole. I actually don't have a problem with low-brow humor in opera per se, nor do I think that the parodistic, collage-like nature of Ghosts is at all at odds with a bawdy, slapstick finale to the first act. My problem with this scene is that it's racist and transphobic.

The music for this scene has all the tired hallmarks of 19th-Century orientalist hogwash: Strident woodwinds, "sensuous" melodic lines, gratuitous linear augmented seconds, the works. Above the pit, we see similar markers: Scantily-clad men performing titillating contortions; dancing girls wearing ornate, gaudy costumes; velvet- and gold-covered everything. This is, in other words, the very picture of the fetishized, objectified, exoticized presentation of the Middle East, replete with undercurrents of threateningly unbridled sexuality, that is all too common in Western art. (It's also not that concerned with geographical distinctions. Much of the music is tied to ways that Turkey specifically has been encoded in the Western musical language, but the visual imagery seems to wander as far astray as India, implying that these vastly different regions are indistinguishable and interchangeable in their non-Westernness.)

Some may object that this scene isn't actually orientalist, it's a parody of orientalism. After all, it ends with a Brünnhilde stand-in loudly proclaiming "This isn't opera! WAGNER is opera!" before getting hit in the face with a pie — clearly we're not meant to take this scene seriously. There are two rejoinders to this. First: Being super orientalist doesn't do anything to critique orientalism. An over-the-top orientalist scene doesn't magically become not orientalist, it's just really really orientalist. An homage, even a cheeky one, is not an evisceration. Second: Many of the musical tropes that mark this music as pseudo-Middle-Eastern are drawn from Westernized impressions of Islamic calls to prayer. What message does it send when such music is repurposed by members of an often hostile outsider culture to fashion the silliest, least-sensical scene in the entire opera?**

In the middle of all this, Figaro enters in drag, disguised as a slave girl. The usual genital jokes ensue. There's less to unpack here; this is baldly transmisogynistic. Using a "man in a dress" as an object of humor and ridicule shores up traditional gender roles and perpetuates the mockery of trans female bodies. Five trans women of color have already been murdered this year in the United States [AlterNet], that we know of. Not a single week of 2015 has passed without a trans woman of color being murdered, but by all means, let's continue mocking people who transgress traditional gender roles. Hysterical.

(There's also the issue of brownface/whitewashing. Patti LuPone is many things, but Egyptian is not one of them. Do not cast white people to play people of color. Do not do it. It's depressing that this still needs to be said.)

If it weren't for this scene, I would be absolutely raving about this opera, in no small part because of how it interacts with one of my favorite strains of Western art.

I have a penchant for the aggressively strange. From the "let's make lots of wet sheep" game of Les Moutons de Panurge to the abstracted trilling of Messiaen's exotic birds, I have a deep and abiding fondness for works that resolutely stick to their principles, regardless of the strangeness of the paths they wind up taking. In the world of opera, this means I often find myself hunting down the surreal or absurd, like Dmitri Shostakovich's Nose or Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts. Many of these works date from shortly after the First World War and reflect the deep artistic anxiety that was in the air at the time. Reacting to the hyper-emotionality of the art produced before the war (especially in Vienna), many artists, composers included, turned to caustic, deliberately nonsensical modes of expression. We won't be tricked into feeling those heady, indulgent, decadent feelings that led to such destruction! their works seem to cry. We won't be fooled again! [Wikipedia]

The problem is, absurdism loses a lot of its sting once you make peace with the absurd. Oh, the bureaucrat's nose mysteriously returned to his face after gallivanting about the city for most of the night? Delightful! There are upwards of twenty saints in at least four acts? What fun! Once you stop expecting a work to fit standard musical or narrative conventions, its failure to do so is no longer shocking or disruptive.

This also disinclines me to spend much time analyzing the works in question. So much of what makes analysis interesting to me involves finding deep, underlying explanations for seemingly incongruous features of the work being scrutinized. But with absurdism, incongruity is kind of the point. With their resolute and determined undercutting of any and all coherent messages, their almost paranoid determination to avoid meaning anything at all with too much conviction, these works seem to hold little ground for the kind of analysis I'm interested in. They're fun to watch, but they don't seem to offer much to think about. Life's absurd, nothing matters, blah, blah, OK, we get it.

At first glance, Ghosts of Versailles seems like it could very easily fit into this mold. Indeed, the scene I described in the opening paragraph would seem like a pretty classic case of this. What, you thought something was actually at stake in this duel? Hah! Joke's on you! Much of this opera can easily be swept away as absurdist incongruity.

But not all of it. It's hard to know what to make of Marie Antoinette's "Golden Bird" aria [YouTube], but there's no doubt that it's sincere. Figaro is dragged back down by the nattering crowd after his interlude among the stars [YouTube], but he is allowed to be genuine, to soar. Woven deftly within the absurdist froth, there are real, even searing threads of emotion. For all its caustic send-ups and scoffing, there are moments where this work is unabashedly earnest. 

The result is, in effect, a rehabilitation of absurdity that manages to combine the best of both worlds. We still have the slapdash "anything can happen at any moment for any reason" of earlier surreal escapades, but unlike those works, the possibility of fruitful intellectual engagement remains. It isn't necessarily immediately obvious what the work's stances on monarchy, history, love, integrity, or the power of art are (to choose just a few examples of the themes Ghosts is addressing), but it seems at least plausible that these questions might have answers. We get the disorienting, unsettling question of "what does it all mean?" without immediately being provided the ready answer that it's all meaningless and life is absurd.

Ghosts is marred by serious flaws, its better parts are a shining testament to the power and potential of postmodern art to engage deeply with its artistic heritage while bringing old questions to life with new power and urgency.

*The plot of this scene, such as it is, is that the characters in the opera-within-an-opera have gone to the Turkish Embassy to sell Marie Antoinette's necklace to the British Ambassador so they can afford to spring her from prison and transport her to the United States. They are unsuccessful in this quest — foiled in part by Figaro — but while they're there, they're lavishly entertained by Suleyman Pasha an the Egyptian singer Samira.

**Given that the borrowings used to construct this scene extend to India, this description [Tumblr blog post] of the impact of cultural appropriation of Indian cultures seems pertinent.