Facing Goya premieres in Singapore

SingaporeSingapore Singapore  2014 Singapore International Festival of the Arts – Nyman, Soloists, Members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and additional musicians, John Kennedy (conductor), Victoria Theatre, Singapore, 16.8.2014 (RP)

Facing Goya premieres in Singapore

Co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and and Singapore International Festival of Arts
Music by Michael Nyman
Libretto by Victoria Hardie

Soprano 1:                   Anne-Carolyn Bird
Soprano 2:                   Aundi Marie Moore
Art Banker:                 Suzanna Guzman
Tenor:                          Thomas Michael Allen
Baritone                       Museop Kim

Ong Keng Sen (director)
Austin Switser (video designer)
Scott Zelinski (lighting designer)
Anita Yavich (costume designer)
Riccardo Hernandez (set designer)

“What are the legacies of the 20th century? How have the last hundred years left an indelible mark on our future?” These questions are posed by Ong Ken Sen, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, in his message to festival goers.  Michael Nyman’s Facing Goya which opens the festival is in Ong’s view an opera “for the future, not for the fossilized.” I attended the third and final performance of the run. Ong’s claims for Facing Goya are a bit of a stretch.

Some critics gave Facing Goya a drubbing when the production first premiered earlier this year at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Holding no punches, The New York Times wrote “To put it kindly, this is an opera of ideas; to put it more accurately, it is high-minded psuedo-intellectual claptrap.” Ong who directed the production bristles at the negative reviews and in an article in The Straits Times, the lead Singaporean newspaper, defends the opera, stating that “it has been misunderstood and under appreciated by early critics, who focused on the non-traditional aspects of libretto and score and mostly ignored the staging.” I may be missing something here, but stagings come and go. It is the libretto and music that have to stand the test of time.

Michael Nyman is one of Great Britain’s most innovative and celebrated composers. Audiences may best know him for his film scores including those for The Piano and Gattaca, but he also writes in more traditional classical music genres. He is not the first minimalist composer to write an opera. In comparison to some of those, Nyman’s score is quite accessible. There is a great deal of variety, including elements of jazz and pop music in those repetitive passages to hold an audience’s interest. That it did is due in large part to conductor John Kennedy and the musicians in the pit.

Voices are amplified, presumable to carry over the electronic instruments which supplemented members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. It is a sign of the times. Audiences have become used to loud at rock concerts and in musical theater. Is opera next? For me, it is a barrier between the singer and the audience. Amplification does work with minimalism however, as it imparts a certain sameness and flatness both in terms of volume and expression to the music that suits the style. I guess the naysayers would say it is just making the monotonous and mundane more so.
As for Victoria Hardie’s libretto, Nyman has said “It’s an opera with a subject but without focus, without a face, without a purpose. Victoria and I have wrote an  opera, which is just basically a collection of information.” It is a bit more than that as the they take on some weighty topics ranging from 19th-century brain theory, the Nazi’s obsession with the Aryan race to modern-day genetic engineering and cloning. The ethical considerations concerning commercialization of this technology also comes into play. They certainly have a point of view on all of this which the production espouses and amplifies.

I think it safe to say that Facing Goya will never have a more committed production team and cast. Their dedication to the work is self evident. Once again I am not sure that the production is quite so innovative, but it is imaginative, evocative and often very beautiful. The lighting effects used in the prelude were mesmerizing and perfectly in sync with the music. In the last two acts where the focus shifts to genome sequencing and cloning, the stage scenes were transformed into films of DNA-like structures overhead.  The repetitive nature of the projections reinforced the same characteristics in Nyman’s music. I found the giant heads that cast members don to be of less interest, but then again I have seen a giant singing nose on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

The emotional punch came in the second act when the singing stopped and historical footage of Hitler, World War II tank battles and horrific scenes from Nazi concentration camps were shown. That is a bit more than just a collection of information. Nyman’s music made the horrible more so. The film clips brought Act II to a close. Some of the audience, primed and waiting for an opportunity to applaud erupted the moment it ended. Perhaps a 21st century phenomenon, where like or dislike is becoming the span of human emotion. And of course hardly a rare occurrence in the opera house or concert hall, where enthusiasm frequently trumps reflection. There were some, for whom silence was the only possible reaction. I was among them.

Suzanna Guzmán was excellent as the Art Banker. Her diction was immaculate. From her experience in musical theater she is presumably used to being miked. It gave her the freedom to exploit many facets of her singing from the purely classical to more popular and jazz styles. Guzmán is a noted Carmen. It was tempting fate to put her in a black lace dress with a red lace mantilla as a prop. She must have faced off many a Escamillo or Don José with the same  stance and look which she tossed at baritone Museop Kim,  portraying the cloned Goy dressed as a matador. For an opera of ideas, that final scene came was touching at a human level. Goya posed the ethical question underpinning the entire opera. Simply, what right did she have to search for his head. He didn’t want it to be found, and he didn’t ask to be cloned for commercial purposes.
In an opera that delves into racial theory and its most extreme applications, it was probably inevitable that there would be multi-racial casting. It would have been fascinating if the casting went against type. That was not the case. Soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and tenor Thomas Michael Alan were called up to portray the 19th century social Darwinists and members of the Aryan Master Race. Bird ‘s light high soprano fared the worst with the amplification. It fell upon Aundi Marie Moore and Kim to embody those near the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Moore too knows how to sing with a mike. She also does indignant very well.

Forget all of that idea stuff. Facing Goya has a plot that runs through it from beginning to end; the Art Banker obsession with Goya and his missing head. Those big ideas are part of the Art Banker’s learning curve. Nothing is resolved at the end, but does it need to be? Ong’s production does what it supposed to do. It is visually arresting, furthers the story and is at one with the music. Definitely not a fossil, but Facing Goya pretty much rooted in the here and now, and besides over a decade old.

Rick Perdian

Leave a Comment