Following a screening of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at my friend Karin’s house, I plopped down on my couch, strummed on my Mako, and watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest. I’d been meaning to watch it for some time, as an acquaintance Tweeted about the scene that captured my interest and will comprise the focus of this post.
Before getting into my thoughts on Elisabeth Welch’s scene-stealing performance, I should preface by saying that I have a tentative grasp on Shakespeare. Like many of my generation, I was certainly aware of various contemporary adaptations following the commercial success of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which moved Jane Austen’s Emma down Rodeo Drive. Unlike many of my peers in media studies, I was not an English major at any point during my college career. I was a jourstory student (a portmanteau in circulation when I was an undergrad that refers to folks who double major in journalism and history). I never had to take any classes on Shakespeare, which I believe is a requirement for English students at UT. As an outsider, I think this is ridiculous, as contemporary literature has been responsible for numerous innovations as well.
But I have no problem with the Bard himself (or Christopher Marlowe, depending on what story we’re telling). In high school, I read Romeo and Juliet, horrifying my English major-Shakespeare enthusiast mother by highlighting passages in her hard-bound, gold-leafed complete works anthology. I read the regressive The Taming of the Shrew, own 10 Things I Hate About You, and played showgirl Lois Lane, who portrays Bianca, in a high school production of Cole Porter’s backstage musical Kiss Me Kate. We read Hamlet aloud junior year in English class. I later saw a woman play Hamlet in an Austin-based production early on in college, but decided against seeing Ethan Hawke’s slacker take on the doomed prince of Denmark.
I did my senior term paper on Titus Andronicus to the chagrin of my teacher, who deemed the play inappropriate and of lesser quality. I read the part of Celia As You Like It for theater class. I played Adriana in a high school production of The Comedy of Errors, which our director regrettably set as a tacky mash-up of 60s kitsch (Laugh-In meets Beach Blanket Bingo!). I liked Emma Thompson and hated Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. I vaguely recall Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as Shakespeare in Love (which time also forgot). I read Othello during college for, you guessed it, an English class. And I didn’t find the Henry V portions of My Own Private Idaho completely distracting.
I also have a tentative grasp on Jarman, having only seen Jubilee. I’m totally willing to get to know his filmography better, as I like how he juxtaposed classical imagery with punk elements. For me, his movies evince the work of a mutual friend at a party who’s charming, smart, arch yet cheeky, and has awesome taste. I’m determined to become besties.
But Jarman is tricky, as I noted upon my screening of Jubilee. His work recalls a conversation I had with my friend Curran about Todd Haynes’s early work, and not for icky “hey, gay filmmakers!” reasons. Apparently, Haynes set out to queer his films in a number of ways. The most obvious of these was through foregrounding gay or queerable characters or putting ostensibly straight women in camp environments, configuring them as allies, or having them cede from the heterosexual marital unit. But Haynes’s key contribution to queer cinema was in challenging audience expectations, experimenting with both the formal and narrative elements of cinema to leave folks unsure of what they’ve seen. To that end, Haynes and fellow Queer New Wave director Gregg Araki are clearly indebted to Gus Van Sant and Jarman.
This brings us to The Tempest , a 95-minute adaptation of the classic play. I’ve never seen or read it, and frankly the movie didn’t help me gather much information. It’s about a magician named Prospero, who was to be Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are stuck on an island after his brother Alonso set them adrift for several years and became the King of Naples. The pacing and commitment to location — in this case, Stoneleigh Abbey — suggests a stagnant insularity from a life in exile. Prospero, the protagonist, is served by a spirit named Ariel, who helps to set right all of the familial discord.
Many old wounds seem healed, as the group set out to return to Naples, and Miranda marries her cousin Ferdinand. But the ending is evasive. In the final scene, Prospero takes it upon the audience to applaud for them in order to determine if they can leave. This makes it one of Shakespeare’s more ambiguous plays, which may have attracted Jarman to the material. At the wedding reception, a goddess appears. Here, she’s played by torch singer Elisabeth Welch in her final screen performance. Somewhat obscure in the states where she was born, England adopted her and she replied in kind by becoming a citizen. Like many chanteuses, she had a significant gay male following. Here she serenades the young couple with a peculiar song.
Yes, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s 1933 standard “Stormy Weather” is strange in its anachronism. It’s also cryptic in its message, thus subverting the role weddings traditionally provide in Shakespearean comedies as a means of tidy resolution. This scene also reminded me of a wedding reception I attended where the band played inappropriate songs like The Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Delivered in a clear, bright tone, Welch conjures up relevant imagery of turbulence while reflecting on lost love. Notably, she’s doing this in front a young, straight couple. Jarman plumbs wedding receptions’ camp potential and indicates the singer’s fan base by surrounding Welch with a chorus line of sailors, masculine figures long integrated into gay culture and iconography. For this perplexed viewer, it’s the stuff that dreams are made on.
Hopefully, we all know by now that Swedish sibling electro duo The Knife have written a opera for Danish ensemble Hotel Pro Forma. The opera, entitled Tomorrow, In a Year, boasts Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as its source material (you can watch segments from the stage production here). A piece from it, entitled “Colouring of Pigeons” was released earlier this month and features Mt. Sims and Planningtorock. I heard it after Jessica Hopper tipped her Twitter followers of its existence. I listened to the track while doing a bit of work-related research on actress Merle Oberon. The piece floored me. In addition to the fascinating source material, the beguiling lyrics, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s gloriously brittle but strong voice, and the intricate production, I also like the inclusion of Mt. Sims on the track (largely because my college roommate clued me in on his fun 2002 debut Ultra Sex). If you haven’t heard all eleven minutes of this song, you can do it here. I’ll wait.
Pretty awesome, right? Like Ryan Dombal, I’m left wondering what the work in full will sound like and bite my nails in excitement over whether there are better songs than this one on it.
I’m also struck by using opera in this way. Growing up, I acquired some knowledge of opera. My mom took me to see a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème that a family friend was in when I was two. I’ve seen Puccini’s Turandot and Tosca, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Giusseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, as well as a gnarly production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele that featured Faust in limbo with an aggregate of naked people with exaggerated prosthetics. And I’ve actually performed “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” an aria from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, on two separate occasions. But my knowledge is pretty canonical, which we all know is code for long-dead white dudes. I’ve only recently discovered Beth Anderson’s Queen Christina and Meredith Monk’s Atlas.
While it’s right to note the campy elements of opera, particularly the high drama, doomed romance, and frothy story lines about sex and death, there are plenty of problems with it. For one, entertaining the prospect of attending an opera is very classed. While many of the major works in the 19th century were populist fare at the time, they’ve since become an exclusive enterprise that requires you to understand a foreign language and be able to pay for a ticket (and usually appropriate formal attire). While there could be something interesting about female protagonists often living as bohemians or working in the oldest profession, they tend to be relegated to the tragic victim of a real love that can never be. These women are rendered more tragic by dying young, getting sold off into sham marriages, or growing old and bitter. Just ask Rufus Wainwright, who may have back and forth about opera with his recently deceased mother, Kate McGarrigle.
Also, the breakdown of roles available to singers based on their registers is pretty troublesome. Sopranos, who possess the most traditionally feminine of vocal ranges, tend to be leading ladies. They’re often accompanied by tenors or baritones as their romantic counterparts. Basses tend to be the villains. And altos, if we exist at all, are working-class whores, wenches, and maids. Occasionally we’re the mothers, but we’re usually shrews. Thanks, bros.
Thus, The Knife have helped opened up opera by attempting to make it at once accessible to a wider audience who lack the fluency or means or interest in traditional opera, iconoclastic in their approach to challenging gender roles and speciation within generic constraints, and decidely strange in terms of composition and subject matter. Because they know that there’s no higher, weirder drama to be found than in the evolution of our own biology.