Talking To The Team Behind WOW (A Milli Vanilli Opera)

WOW performance photo courtesy of The New Inquiry
WOW performance photo courtesy of The New Inquiry

It’s interesting how, by using the whole space, using these different spaces as they are intended to function, the whole opera kind of folds in on itself.

David Levine: That’s what we intended. They have an art gallery here, that’s its institutional function, and one of the craziest moments in the Milli Vanilli story is in their last video, which has a narrative: Rob is a painter and he has a solo show. He fucks his way into a solo show, and his career is ruined when there’s a big unveiling of his masterwork and it turns out that he’s painted his gallerist just wearing his shirt on the bed holding a cat, basically post-coital. And for him, it’s his masterwork but he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know the rules of the game, somehow. He doesn’t know you’re not supposed to do that, you’re not supposed to reveal how the system works. So there’s a big unveiling and she’s horrified and everyone’s kind of aghast…

Michelle Stern: The gallerist is also sleeping with Fab…

David Levine: She’s also sleeping with Fab! It’s a weird moment but since these guys [BRIC] happen to have an art gallery it made sense to include it.

I mean, when you really start to think about it, you find yourself wondering: what was it like rehearsing lip-syncing? What is that? They were already really accomplished club dancers, so all they really had to learn in the studio was how to move their mouths while doing these moves…. So we’ve got two lip syncing dancers playing Rob and Fab, one of the singers is playing Frank Farian and another singer is kind of like a spirit guide or narrator. And because Rob and Fab are always chasing a woman in one of their videos that rapidly becomes metaphorical, and the audience is kind of moving through a progression along with Rob and Fab.

At the same time, the audience always has this option of either watching the formal production of opera in the room with Joe and the orchestra and singers – even though its very technological – or walking around watching bullshit bubblegum spectacle with the lip syncing dancers, which is what I’m doing. So the audience is always making a choice based on something thematic within the story itself, which is: Are you going to hang out in the site where it’s made or are you going to hang out where it’s processed into narrative?

When I think about the unpredictable relationship between the score, the text and the movement, I almost immediately go to Cage, Cunningham and chance operations. How does this relate to those ideas?

Joe Diebes: Cage is definitely the bedrock and the first person that comes up when one starts to talk about chance operations and that sort of thing. But at this point I am really thinking much more about the algorithms at work with Pandora, or pricing models. I’m interested in the way technology creates databases, processes data, indexes, tags and and streams information. It’s not so much that it’s random – and very little is actually random – random. Algorithmic by necessity doesn’t mean random.

I would say rather than chance it’s a constant present, a constant live opportunity to reconnect all these little pieces of machinery that we have, and the pieces of machinery include everything from Wagner’s Meistersinger to the orchestra that’s onstage, the dancers that are moving around, the text that comes from all sorts of locations …

Christian Hawkey: It’s risky because we’re creating conditions under which something may or may not happen. They’re emergent properties in a way…

Joe Diebes: Within the first ten minutes anyone who’s looking for, or expecting, this exquisitely composed linear piece of music is going to be disappointed. But if they stick around, they’ll adjust to that notion and they’ll recalibrate for the way the timing and the pacing and the music is delivered in this unpredictable way; the way climaxes are not delivered in any kind of traditional way.

It’s something that once you tune yourself into it, it’s a different way of listening. It’s a kind of listening that’s a little more open and active as an audience member because you’re not getting pulled along by a leash, by the score that kind of tells you, “Okay, climax! Now you’ve got to feel this, now you’ve got to cry, now you’ve got to do this.”

The way time is directed in this piece, at least as far as the music, is kind of open. Although I’m definitely interested in the possibility of making an emotional, affective tone, the moment-to-moment operation of the piece is not designed to do that. I think of it not as a climax but a climate. You’re in more of a space, more of an environment and you can wander and do what you want. So it seems quite repetitive a lot of the time – I mean it’s always varying subtly but there is a lot of similar sounding material  – but the reason for that is once that repetition sets in, the audience is no longer waiting on tenterhooks for the next moment exactly to happen. They can scan the room, they can look, they can listen, they can see how the connections are happening and be open to hearing something they’re not expecting, that we’re not expecting. It’s about not didactically directing the audience’s attention but rather creating a very open space, a creative space for the audience.

David Levine: We all have similar attitudes towards our disciplines. So if you’re doing an opera you may as well have a poet and a composer and a director doing it, but I think we all have equivalent attitudes towards our disciplines and what we’d like to do with or to them, how we’d like to honor them but also change them. But we also all have very different takes on the story and we all have really different tastes, which is to say that I’m more into narrative than these guys are, and these guys are more into different kinds of processes – even though we’re all actually into algorithm – and you can see from all of our work we take very different stances towards it. The dramaturgy is contrapuntal, which is basically what multi-tracking is.

So the idea was really that we would each have kind of a layer, and here it’s spatial, and the dramaturgy is kind of a function of that layering. We all have our separate lines, these are all in counterpoint with each other, and the actual resulting piece is the product of these separate lines theoretically running in harmony but also on their own logic.

Joe Diebes: The whole project of trying to reinforce one medium with another is just really problematic. To try to make the music support the narrative in a very specific way, for the text be supported – to really, actually, literally try form second to second make it all line up – is just a very didactic thing, like a closed circuit.  I think everything about what we’re doing, if it creates associations or has a resonance or somehow, it offers some kind of a poetic relation between the various elements. That resonance may even be found in failure, maybe it’s not poetic in a beautiful way, maybe it’s a more glaring, weird, wrong or shocking thing – but whatever it is, it’s manifesting a certain kind of … I don’t want to use the word autonomy because we’re not totally in our own worlds.

It’s kind of like this idea of creating an open system where these little machines connect and interconnect in ways that would never happen otherwise. Once you start dealing with machinery on any level – whether it’s opera machinery of the voice or the institution of opera or whatever it is, any kind of machinery, it can become a very closed system very quickly.

I think the idea of being able to open the system is always my goals and it’s always a difficulty. I work with technology so much and sometimes it’s hard to break out of the algorithms you’re using or the procedures, because it has it’s own logic that wants to close. So when you collaborate – like with Christian and David – there’s a total logic to the way both of them work, but it’s a different logic and it’s a different machine that quotes my machine in different ways and I just really like what pops out.

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