Beethoven, Nam Jun Paik, Claus Nomi, and the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade walk into a bar...
Traditionalists may be aghast but they won't stop the current wave of operatic reinvention. A month after Lincoln Center got it's socks rocked by a Chinese opera with live-action stunts and Pink Floyd style projections (Monkey: Journey To The West), the Edinburgh Festival filled every seat to Opera de Lyon's extreme production of Fidelio.
With his intriguing staging of Beethoven's only opera, Seattle artist Gary Hill literally turns operatic segues into Segways. In addition to performers on gyroscopic transporters, he incorporates huge video projections and effects, Nomi-esque costumes, and an overlay of science fiction poetry. Yes, opera is moving forward - and sideways, and backwards and maybe even pulling a few donuts in the parking lot.
Gary Hill is well known in the high concept art world for his video and performance pieces. Cerebral and aloof as art can be, Hill's work has been described as exploring a range from 'physicality of language, synesthesia and perceptual conundrums to ontological space and viewer interactivity'.
New media art sometimes plays nice with entertainment (think David Byrne or Laurie Anderson) but the mainstream doesn't quite get synesthesia and ontological space. Opera audiences, on the other hand, are experts at witnessing full-on emotional conundrums without full comprehension.
Hill, an admitted opera newbie, describes his Fidelio as a "mash-up". His take may be nouveau, yet by definition opera is a mash-up of disciplines. Beethoven and his theatrical conspirators would certainly have used state-of-the-art staging, effects, acoustics, dance and performance. Perhaps he'd have left off the science fiction part?
Every generation of artists and audiences see themselves as the most modern iteration of humankind and act accordingly. Over the course of his career Gary Hill has shown tremendous sophistication in the vernacular of fine art, his mother tongue. Now, his directorial debut gives us all a welcome opportunity to rethink our own aesthetic comfort zones.
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