Hopefully, we all know by now that Swedish sibling electro duo The Knife have written a opera for Danish ensemble Hotel Pro Forma. The opera, entitled Tomorrow, In a Year, boasts Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as its source material (you can watch segments from the stage production here). A piece from it, entitled “Colouring of Pigeons” was released earlier this month and features Mt. Sims and Planningtorock. I heard it after Jessica Hopper tipped her Twitter followers of its existence. I listened to the track while doing a bit of work-related research on actress Merle Oberon. The piece floored me. In addition to the fascinating source material, the beguiling lyrics, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s gloriously brittle but strong voice, and the intricate production, I also like the inclusion of Mt. Sims on the track (largely because my college roommate clued me in on his fun 2002 debut Ultra Sex). If you haven’t heard all eleven minutes of this song, you can do it here. I’ll wait.
Pretty awesome, right? Like Ryan Dombal, I’m left wondering what the work in full will sound like and bite my nails in excitement over whether there are better songs than this one on it.
I’m also struck by using opera in this way. Growing up, I acquired some knowledge of opera. My mom took me to see a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème that a family friend was in when I was two. I’ve seen Puccini’s Turandot and Tosca, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Giusseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, as well as a gnarly production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele that featured Faust in limbo with an aggregate of naked people with exaggerated prosthetics. And I’ve actually performed “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” an aria from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, on two separate occasions. But my knowledge is pretty canonical, which we all know is code for long-dead white dudes. I’ve only recently discovered Beth Anderson’s Queen Christina and Meredith Monk’s Atlas.
While it’s right to note the campy elements of opera, particularly the high drama, doomed romance, and frothy story lines about sex and death, there are plenty of problems with it. For one, entertaining the prospect of attending an opera is very classed. While many of the major works in the 19th century were populist fare at the time, they’ve since become an exclusive enterprise that requires you to understand a foreign language and be able to pay for a ticket (and usually appropriate formal attire). While there could be something interesting about female protagonists often living as bohemians or working in the oldest profession, they tend to be relegated to the tragic victim of a real love that can never be. These women are rendered more tragic by dying young, getting sold off into sham marriages, or growing old and bitter. Just ask Rufus Wainwright, who may have back and forth about opera with his recently deceased mother, Kate McGarrigle.
Also, the breakdown of roles available to singers based on their registers is pretty troublesome. Sopranos, who possess the most traditionally feminine of vocal ranges, tend to be leading ladies. They’re often accompanied by tenors or baritones as their romantic counterparts. Basses tend to be the villains. And altos, if we exist at all, are working-class whores, wenches, and maids. Occasionally we’re the mothers, but we’re usually shrews. Thanks, bros.
Thus, The Knife have helped opened up opera by attempting to make it at once accessible to a wider audience who lack the fluency or means or interest in traditional opera, iconoclastic in their approach to challenging gender roles and speciation within generic constraints, and decidely strange in terms of composition and subject matter. Because they know that there’s no higher, weirder drama to be found than in the evolution of our own biology.