Whirr2006-02-16
The Matrix meets Crouching Tiger meets La Boheme
I went to this event at Northwestern the other day, and had really now idea what I was getting into. It turned out to be the world premier of Eric Whitacre's techno-opera / obsession, Paradise Lost. I'd never heard of him before, but apparently to the legions of high school chorus members throughout the world he's a cross between and , with a touch of . He had a Q&A session after the show in which he... well, he expressed great confidence in the future of his musical. Far from "someday hoping to stage it on Broadway", Broadway was the first step, and almost assured. On the way home I chatted to a guy named Daniel, who had flown in from London specifically to go to this concert--clearly it was a much bigger thing than I had anticipated..

The Music: The most interesting thing here is the music. I really, really like opera / techno mashups. I once designed a lighting piece to the Lucia di Lamamoor remix from The Fifth Element, and I have an mp3 of a Madam Butterfly aria that's been skillfully remixed with a cool bass backbeat, and I listen to that a lot. And one of my favorite bands is QNTAL, which does traditional medieval music with a strong electronic component.

Anyway, Whitacre is doing something different from all that, in that he isn't remix classical music, he's writing it, from the ground up, to incorporate electronica. He's a classically trained Julliard composer who claims that he used to spend all night at raves in high school. The concert that I saw had eight soloists, a 32 person chorus, a 24 person string section, four french horns, a cello, a timpani, and a DJ with a powerbook and a G5 tower.

When the music did not work for me (which was about 40% of the time) it was just pretty standard musical theatre fare, highlighting the male lead, who sang lots of rhyming words. The rest of the time, it was really exceptional. For a couple of the songs, and then for the finale, Bliss, it really hit me, and I was sitting way up at the back of the stage. In Bliss, the french horns finally got to show off, the strings were all sawing away as fast as they could, and the lead tenor was singing a pretty glorious line, while this other tenor was singing (I think I have this right) counterpoint. All of this layered over and mixed in with some pretty awesome electronica. There was also a bit in there with a trilling soprano (his wife, who I also liked quite well) that was very reminiscent of the Queen of the Night's second aria.

I mention this not (merely) to drop names, but because that piece of music is my current standard by which to compare things. Zorro Unmasked, for example, was about a three on the Queen of the Night’s Second Aria Scale. That sushi I had at that place that time was probably a nine or even a ten--eating that tempura salmon roll, with spicy sauce and eel was about as mind blowing as the QONSA. Anyway, Bliss was probably a seven or an eight, and that's not bad. The rest of the show was probably a five or a six QONSAS.

The Goal: Whatever you might say about Mr. W, he's not without ambition. Apparently he couldn't read music until he studied it in college--at Julliard. These days he has his own annual choral festival, but he still seems like a very cool, down-to-earth fellow, although very Southern Californian. I might even write him a letter. He says that the final production will be "The Matrix meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, meets La Boheme". He says that it will have remote-controlled, robotic angel wings, and that all of the actors will be trained in Kung Fu. Well, his wife already has her black belt, so that's well on it's way. And he mounted a production in LA (and, apparently, in Berlin) with the angel wings, although I don't really like the look of them.

When I saw this, I saw it performed concert style--without any costumes or motion. A narrator described the scene, and the giant screens that will lower in order to display to two custom-drawn anime movies that are part of the show, and the crazy kung fu battles. I'd pay to see that, no question.

The Plot: Well, is that really so important? So Lucifer fell prey to the Darkness, and a bunch of angels tried to drive him out, but they also fell. The good angels hid their children in a remote location, where they would be safe from the evil. 17 years later, these children are still there, still walled in, and being lead by Logos, the eldest. He rules with complete authority, but his sister escapes and learns that their parents are dead. She returns, they fight, she wins but decides not to kill him, thus breaking the cycle of violence. At this point, inexplicably, the second tenor stabs her in the back and she dies.


























*Dear Sir:

I really enjoyed your lovely musical. Bits of it touched me deeply, and a lot of the music was extremely moving. The plot, of course, is irrelevant, although if you have some spare time you may wish to consider adding a sub- or secondary plot, bringing a little depth to the piece. Perhaps you may wish to explore the character of the individual angels a little more thoroughly but, as I say, this is not necessary for musical theatre.

Speaking of character, however, brings me to the point of this missive--the names of the characters. I realize that time is short, and in a musical you have only so many minutes, with little to waste on characterization, so it probably seemed the height of efficiency to simply give each angel a name that would also explain everything about it. If we know our Hebrew, than we know that the angel "Ahava" is very loving--she doesn't even need to be onstage! Brilliant!

Mr. Whitacre, have you ever read the Harry Potter books? Do you continue to find it amusing that the spell to make things float is called "Levitatus", or that "Expelliarmus" makes things fly out of peoples' hands? These things are not funny, they are irritating. They are irritating because they say, "This is just a story, it isn't about real magic, and I'm making a little pun!". Real magic wouldn't sound like a fifth grader randomly pulling out "appropriate" and impressive sounding words. Real angels aren't named "Gravitas" because they're fat, or "Fervio" because they are passionate.

I see where you may have gotten confused. After all, I myself am currently enjoying Dostoevsky's The Idiot. In this book, a main character is the fallen woman Anastasia Barashkov and yes, it is true, her name resolves to "Resurection Lamb". And the central character is Leon Myshkin--"Lion Mouse", or some such thing... but these are all Russian names, and the story is set in Russia, and they are not gratingly obvious puns! Igneous the angel of fire, indeed. Surely angels have angelic names like Ardousius (nurturing love) or Azer (fire) or, apparently, Rudosor (Angel of the sixth hour of the night).

In closing, nothing is worse than someone who feels pretentious because they used the word "Logos". We all know that word, you aren't special. Stick to making pretty noises. Now, if you'd named someone Onayepheton (The name of a spirit by which God will summon the dead and raise them to life again) I might have been impressed.
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