The brilliant Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth finally had another work performed in the US on Friday night when her chamber opera version of the David Lynch-Barry Gifford film Lost Highway opened at Columbia's Miller Theater. That it takes a college group, albeit the everything-but-professional students of the Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble, to bring her music here smacks of a high-level conspiracy, but it's really not that difficult. Neuwirth trades in Expressionistic alienation and a modernist by inclination, and alienation is a theme that isn't that welcome in contemporary music. Film can get away with it, though, as Lynch has proven over and over, so if it takes students under the spirited leadership of Timothy Weiss and director Jonathon Field to get this music on the stage, that's fine by me.
Large swathes of the film's dialogue are incorporated into the libretto, by controversial Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek. That dialogue is rarely sung, but instead spoken by actors, and the music of the characters who do sing is written such that supertitles aren't necessary. (Bill Bolcom, are you listening? An Austrian sets English more clearly than you do.) Jelinek rewrote two scenes, one in which Mr. Eddy beats a man for smoking where it's prohibited-in the movie he whips a guy for speeding-and another when Renee first strips for Mr. Eddy. In the opera, she gets to keep her clothes on, and the scene is narrated.
Neuwirth's score plays destructive havoc on your senses, always twitching, never letting you relax, much like the film. Lynch's unbearable ominousness and suspense have found a musical analogue through Neuwirth's electronically manipulated speech, song and instrumental effects.
One example: There's a party scene early on, and Neuwirth supplies electronic dance music piped through the loudspeakers. Over that, she lays the small orchestra playing tightly focused phrases that register like blips on the radar. Your ear keeps trying to focus on the beat, but gets distracted by the busier elements.
That scene achieve musically what Lynch achieves through film editing and, yes, his soundtrack, which is an unsettling feeling that something awful is about to happen to these people. It does, of course, but the tension is never resolved, for in both the opera and the film end with Fred/Pete going through violent contortions as their personalities and identities wage war against each other. There's no easy pay-off here, not even the cautious, haunted reflections of What It All Means that Nixon and China goes through in Act III. Those seeking catharsis should look elsewhere.
With many of them making their New York debuts, the young singers and actors must have been fighting some vicious jitters, and, indeed, they did all become more convincing as the opera progressed. But they couldn't match the dread of Neuwirth's score with their acting or singing. I'll speculate that it's a lack of experience and not for lack of effort that the cool assurance of the movie's cast was lacking from last night's.
Baritone Michael Weyandt stood out as the persecuted auto-mechanic Pete, singing with a clear high baritone and showing great confidence as an actor. His doppelganger Fred, actor Barry Bryan, sounded oddly detached from his lines. Alice Teyssier took a few scenes to get comfortable, but she became a haunting dual persona as Alice/Renee, the lover of the two guys above. The flights of her light soprano communicated her characters' wounded bird personality well.
Raphael Sacks' Mr. Eddy was a stick-thin brute who rages in falsetto and rumbles with even more menace. Such a young actor in the role can't help appearing a little comical, and falls just shy of scaring the bejesus out of the audience. And I hate to say it, but countertenor Chad Grossman's Mystery Man, the creepy apparition in white face paint and garish red lipstick who exists solely to mess with the subconscious, isn't creepy at all, but he does sing well. Yet he'll give no one nightmares.
What this opera needs is another production that isn't constrained by a college music department's budget. (Mark Swed wrote in the LA Times that English National Opera is reportedly producing it next year, and Kairos has released the original 2003 Graz production on CD. [Scroll down.]) The orchestra and singers give stunning performances for musicians of their age, and Oberlin compares exceptionally to the Bloomington and Juilliard ensembles I've heard, but their technique isn't that of a group of pros. They probably haven't been kicked around by life too much, either, and once they have been, they'll be able to appreciate that alienation Neuwirth is so fond of much better.