Monday, September 15, 2014

Facing Goya, Victoria Theatre, 16 Aug 2014

As a fan of Michael Nyman's, I was eager to watch his opera Facing Goya, especially following the ovations it received at Spoleto a few months ago. I was also particularly intrigued to discover what a "science fiction opera" actually was. Debuting in 2000, with libretto by Victoria Hardie, and directed by Ong Keng Sen (a homegrown Singapore talent!), the opera explores the question of whether Francisco Goya's creativity might be recreated through science. The first half examines the validity of the prospect through 20th century craniometry; the second, through 21st century genetics. Thus the piece is a classic debate on Arts versus Science.

The choice of Goya as the piece's ambassador-for-the-Arts is driven by the legend that "Goya asked friends to remove his head prior to burial to prevent tomb thieves and early craniometrists from getting hold of his brain for research." Unfortunately for him, the Art Banker (played by Suzanna Guzman) has done just this, and despite her protestations, the skull lands in the hands of four craniometrists (Aundi Marie Moore, Thomas Michael Allen, Museop Kim and Anne-Carolyn Bird) who attempt to diagnose its features for the source of Goya's creativity. Two of them expound theories on how relative proportions, or the size of features, imply kindness or intelligence or so on, while two fiercely contest them.

I confess that most of the abstruse libretto truly escaped me, except for the repeated references to Goya's "snub nose" and the virtuous qualities it thus implied in him. Hardie certainly made an effort to weave in many founding craniometrists and their beliefs, but unless I read the libretto dedicatedly, the specific debate is lost. All that's left is a general impression that craniometry was a science which, though now proven preposterous, was a handy tool for bigotry in years past.

And it is on this point that the first half ends summarily. As it draws to its interval, references to Hitler and his own beliefs in anthropometry's truth (thus Aryan supremacy) gradually increase, culminating in a slide show depicting the horrors of World War II. The message is clear -- this is what reducing the quality of an individual to his appearance leads to.

In the second half, the craniometrists transform into geneticists, with the whacky antediluvian antics of yesteryear replaced by today's cutting edge science. They embark on largely the same format of debate (but with wings now, instead of craniometry instruments, because I suppose pipettes and agarose gel would have been odd props. Then what of the glittering skulls that appeared later...? Never mind.) The intrigue is that while this debate clearly leads down the same path as before, we are far more tempted to believe in today's predictive capacity of genetics. After all, they foretell disease, and does dealing with disease not affect the personality? And so go several other arguments, which, when pitched in a scientific lingo more familiar to us, become more convincing.

Thus the piece very effectively juxtaposes scientific perspectives of yore and today, to conclude (for me at least) that humans are essentially dumb idealists, ever searching for a way to classify and segment those around us. (I am intentionally excluding analysis of the far-too-perplexing segue where Goya reappears, in fully cloned form, and matador dress, to copulate with the Art Banker.) While the science-driven typecasting of craniometrists may sound ludicrous and racist, we're essentially quite poised to do the same thing with genetics, in the search of yet a better way to explain the human condition. It's that need that will ruin us, not the science.

Just as subjective as the art science debate is, so was the reception to the opera divided. The evening was speckled with sporadic applause, as if the audience were unsure when or even if to clap. No standing ovation the night I went; and spying during the interval and after the show revealed more confusion about the piece than anything else. A further foray into reviews finds them equally ambivalent -- a "claptrap", according to the New York Times, and attaining a "new level of resonance", according to the Financial Times.

Personal conclusion: I truly enjoyed the piece! It was definitely inaccessible at times, due to the libretto as mentioned (the first line is an unintelligible "Dogs drowning in sand"), odd plot points (Goya's revival), and inexplicable character choices (I'm not sure which side of the debate the Art Banker stood on by the end?). Even the music was occasionally cacophonous to me; its lack of obvious structure a jarring departure from MGV. All put together, it is indeed too slippery for the unaccustomed palette to grab hold of. But by the end, it met my standards for a unique and provocative work of art -- wherein it starts off as an apparent jumble of sights and sounds, but soon one can discover a theme, a pattern, very much of its own creation. I love a piece that can deliver its own voice and language like that, even if I've yet to make full sense of it. Coupled with the chance to dive into a philosophical reflection on science as a tool in the human search for meaning, I walked away officially provoked.

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