Confusion: A Lip-Synch Opera (2007)

“How can a passion of the mind, offered by one man to another and impossible to fulfill, ever find complete satisfaction? It roams restlessly around the revered figurealways flaring up to new heights of ecstacy, yet never assuaged by any final act of devotion.”

 Stefan Zweig, Confusion

The concept of a lip-synch opera offends many people. However, having raised drag queens to the role of High Priests in Music for the Tooth-Filing Ceremony, I now wanted to raise the process of lip-synching to the level of what is considered by many to be the the great apex of the performing arts in Western culture, namely opera. Moreover, in a work that explores the concept of fandom, and how fans tend to lose their own identities in the process of trying to know and understand a celebrity, I felt it important that none of the characters onstage speak with his or her own voice. The work's title comes from a novella by Stefan Zweig, about a student who becomes obsessed with his teacher.

At the center of this exploration was my research into the Countess Virginia Oldoini di Castiglione (1837-1899). The Countess was, in her youth, the most photographed woman in Europe, working with a Parisian photographer name Pierre-Louis Pierson, she had herself photographed in a wide variety of costumes, and these photographs were then sold to the public. Since the Countess did not act, sing, or otherwise have talents (except for self-promotion) she is arguably the first person to become famous for being famous.

In this work, the Narrator (he has no name) is fixated on a fictional opera singer named Natasha R, a woman of slippery identity. The Narrator has devoted his life to collecting her recordings, books about her, and photographs of her. The audience deduces quickly that this is someone who spends most of his time in his apartment listening to recordings.

The Narrator proceeds to recount what is known about the life of Natasha R, based on the public documents that she has left behind. He has apparently interviewed her at some point, and has a small cassette deck that he uses to listen to these interviews. Indeed, the spoken voice of Natasha R always sounds like it is playing back on the small cheap speaker of this cassette deck.

Periodically, the Narrator puts on headphones, to listen to Natasha R performing well-known arias. He quickly becomes lost in an ecstatic state.

When the Narrator listens to Natasha R, the picture frame behind him suddenly comes to life, and she appears, apparently singing as she did for the recording.

At certain points in his narrative, the Narrator recounts conversations he had with Natasha, some of which did not go so well. At one point he describes how she grabbed his coat and spoke to him. Of course, we are to imagine that this encounter is imaginary, and since Natasha is behind a glass opening, she cannot actually touch the Narrator. But in his imagination the encounter is no less real for all of that.

We quickly learn that the eccentric Natasha, like the Countess di Castiglione, has become obsessed with a Parisian photographer named Marcel Piron. Soon she resists the idea of any other photographer taking her picture except Marcel. He becomes the one who can capture her true essence. [Listen to the excerpt called "Those Photographs!" in the Sound page of this website.]

Marcel takes Natasha for a stroll through the city of Paris, and in showing her the sights, he points out the apartment once occupied by the Countess. Natasha decides that this is where she must live. [This scene in the opera was accompanied by a slide show of my photographs of Paris.]

The Narrator (Doug Stapleton), Natasha R (Jeff Abell) and Marcel Piron (Douglas Grew)

The Narrator (Doug Stapleton), Natasha R (Jeff Abell) and Marcel Piron (Douglas Grew)

Living in the Countess's apartment soon causes Natasha to develop a fixation with the Countess. She becomes obsessed with collecting photographs of the Countess. She repaints the walls of the apartment black, as the Countess had, and soon she will only go out at night, "heavily veiled."

Finally, in an attempt to get closer to the Countess, Natasha hires a medium named Madame Blavatchik, to come and channel the Countess for her. A medium struck me as the epitome of lip-synch, with a spirit voice emerging from the mouth of someone else. In the scene with the Medium, one hears both the voice of Madame Blavatchik and a second voice, ostensibly that of the Countess.

Madame Blavatchik about to channel the Countess (Nana Shineflug)

Madame Blavatchik about to channel the Countess (Nana Shineflug)

The Medium as The Countess: (her trance deepens, and the ironic tone vanishes.)

 We’re not here to change the world. We’re here to change ourselves. The lie turns to truth, the lie gives birth to truth, as the planet turns out of darkness into the light.

Our selves as well.

The density of bodies – it goes back to light.

 It is a wave, a kind of music, a music that comes from the heavens: that is the source, this light, this music.

As we ourselves turn to light, we embody that in our own way.

 This music, a wave through your whole body. Our lives shut it out – isolate us. But our art takes away the lies, uncovers them.

[This passage is based, in part, on an actual interview, via spirit medium, of the Countess di Castiglione. This can be found on CD here.]

Eventually, the Narrator, overcome with emotions, leaves the stage, and the work ends with Natasha R, singing in one of her last recordings: Mahler's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.

I live alone

in my heaven

in my love,

in my love,

in my song.

The last sound we hear is the scratching of a record at the end of its groove.

The photographs here are from the first performance of the work, at the space where it was created, the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago, Illinois. 2008.