Back in March, I saw Sleepwalk Collective’s Kourtney Kardashian at HOME, Manchester. This was part of an ‘accidental trilogy’ of pieces by the Spanish-British company, named after the Kardashian sisters, with each show employing a particular performance genre to approach themes of art, celebrity and technology. For this final piece in the trilogy, the company turned to opera; in their programme note, they describe Kourtney Kardashian as ‘an opera of sorts’, or more accurately, ‘a show about opera and all the things that make it up, about voices and singing and excess and luxury and beauty and humanity in all its fragile wonder [emphasis in the original]’. As someone who has spent much of the last decade obsessing over many of the same issues, I was probably too perfect an audience member for this show, desiring a level of depth and nuance that it could never totally satisfy. Nevertheless, the performance stimulated a lot of ideas for me, and even its blind spots were instructive.
Early in Kourtney Kardashian, one of the two main performers, iara Solano Arana, promises us that there will be no singing in this ‘opera’, and there isn’t. Neither is there live music, nor a conventional narrative. If this show is an opera, it is one that has been emptied of all content. It feels vacant: opera’s deep social and ritual blueprints evacuated and preserved as empty containers. The performance begins with the ‘conductor’ — Sammy Metcalfe, stage left with laptops — taking a bow and ‘striking up the orchestra’. From this point on, each carefully measured section is filled to turgidity by a steady flow of electronic ambient and drone music, looping phrases circulating through the air, rising and falling in slow waves. It is the opposite of the grand opera score, almost completely without drama, measuring and homogenising time and space as an undifferentiated volume of thick musical packing fluid.
Like the orchestral score, Metcalfe’s music provides a ‘bed’ — or in this case, a kind of agar plate — for human voices. Like in grand opera, these voices are attached to bodies: female bodies in lavish and impractical gowns. For the audience, the majority of the performance involves listening to these voices and watching these bodies, dressed in gold foil, as they deliberately and luxuriously fill the visual and audial space that Metcalfe has provided for them. They perform with great affectation, drawing attention to the sound of their words as they ooze through the microphone and out into the air, drawing attention to their doll-like poses as they hold them, counting the seconds, calculating the ‘value’ of the pose relative to the total time of the performance and the cost of a ticket. And they address the audience in strange, slow soliloquies, telling us what we’re experiencing and how we should feel about it. Each section — framing a single theme, act or gesture — is demarcated by an ebb in the music and a projected title corresponding to some operatic device or convention: Overture, Duet, Cavatina, Cadenza, etc.
Kourtney Kardashian was perfectly calibrated to my interests, not only because it presented a performative deconstruction of opera, but because it used that deconstruction to explore ideas of reality, theatricality and fiction, which have been the key paradigm for my own deconstructive approach to music theatre over the last few years. When it comes to arguments over artificiality and truth, immediacy and esotericism, there are few discourses that are as conflicted as that of opera. For some, opera is a byword for the exclusive and the elitist, hopelessly impenetrable to anyone lacking a lifelong initiation via wealth and privilege: indeed, the very ability to appreciate opera would seem to be a kind of grotesque entitlement that should, in a just world, be swiftly abolished. Moreover, the art form is meant to be tastelessly excessive and ludicrously unrealistic, with its hackneyed plots played out through overripe acting and bizarrely distorted voices. This mimetic deficit is barely compensated for by the manufactured orchestral drama and ostentatious sets.
At the same time, opera is also supposed to be an art form with timeless and universal appeal, delivering emotional truth from body to body through the visceral force of the human voice and its musicalisation, bypassing the disingenuous apparatus of theatrical mimesis. The plots of classic operas are supposed to have the archetypal force of Greek myths or Shakespeare plays, while opera as live experience is supposed to be a celebration of individual virtuosity and group collaboration: a multidisciplinary array of craftsmanship and skill all marshalled towards a common goal of emotional and sensual saturation.
Opera is obviously, irrevocably and ridiculously fake, we are told, and yet simultaneously a repository of raw ‘humanity’. It is supposed to be a quintessentially niche pastime — whose exclusivity is reproduced to maintain its refined quality — while having potentially universal appeal, receiving a huge amount of public funding as both ‘official’ and public culture: the intangible cultural heritage of Post-Enlightenment Europe.
In their programme note, Sleepwalk Collective bring many of these complexities to bear on their piece. Despite not being an opera company, they’ve tried to construct ‘an experience that feelslike an opera … despite its cheerful and obvious fakeness’. This, then, is a fake opera — indeed, it’s an obviously fake opera. And yet, later, they celebrate opera’s ‘unapologetic unrealness [emphasis in original]’, which makes Kourtney Kardashian an obviously fake version of something that is already unapologetically unreal. The flaunting of a fake fake. A few paragraphs later, they make the explicit connection to the Kardashians, who they propose to be ‘the first celebrities who seem truly “native”’ to a contemporary world in which technology has ‘massively complicated our sense of what’s real and what isn’t’. Unlike someone like Paris Hilton, SC argue, ‘with the Kardashians it feels fully possible that the public personas they present on TV and across social media are who they really are [emphasis in original]’:
There is a perverse kind of authenticity in this, perhaps. Or at least the closest to a version of authenticity that we’re likely to find anymore — an honest dishonesty, a deception with nothing to hide.
‘Honest dishonesty’ is, of course, comparable to the ‘obviously fake’ and the ‘unapologetically unreal’. This certainly chimes with some modes of opera appreciation, particularly those queer perspectives that celebrate its camp or ‘disidentificatory’ value. The operatic diva exudes exquisite pathos in her performance of excess, overspilling the narrow artificial confines of her social circle in a doomed blaze of messy glory. Similarly, for some opera fans, it is the very fact that opera doesn’t try to approach perfect verisimilitude — in the manner of some spoken theatre — that leaves the performance ‘open’ for certain (queer) forms of identification.
But this ‘perverse kind of authenticity’ also speaks to contemporary trends that link reality TV and Instagram culture with live art and performance theatre (as discussed in my favourite book to cite at the moment: Daniel Schulze’s Authenticity in Contemporary Theatre and Performance). This ‘post-postmodern’ approach to authenticity acknowledges the ultimate emptiness of categories like truth and reality, given the extent to which social categories and individual subjectivities are constructed or performed. Nevertheless, there is an experience of authenticity in allowing or enlisting us to participate in this process of construction or performance. This cuts to the core of the aesthetic of performance companies like Sleepwalk Collective. As such, the deconstruction–reconstruction in Kourtney Kardashian cuts both ways, with the imposition of a generic ‘operatic’ blueprint serving to isolate and interrogate certain live art/performance theatre conventions.
One of the pivots of this deconstructive axis is the figure of Metcalfe himself; alongside those conventionally delineated containers of space and time, filled with sound, voice and female bodies, he constitutes the other key part of the operatic apparatus mapped by Sleepwalk Collective. He is the combined figure of the composer–conductor, half-present in semi-darkness but wrapped around the whole performance. Through text projections that initially appear at the start of the piece, Metcalfe is introduced as the first-person narrator of the show, ‘his’ words appearing intermittently throughout, to silently comment upon and contextualise the words and actions of the performers. Through these projections, we learn that deep in the subconscious of the production is a performance of The Marriage of Figaro that Metcalfe ‘saw’ as a child, with his parents in two principal roles. The dreamlike reconstruction of the opera presented here could thus be viewed as one of naïve misrecognition — a childlike gaze — which clashes with Solano’s later condemnation of the audience as complicit escapists, pitting the honest and open ‘I’ of the projections against the artificial posing of the performers. These ‘autobiographical’ details appear to provide the indelible trace of authenticity around which the whole performance is anchored (and which seems to be required as a source of validity in almost all new art being produced these days, at least in the UK). Yet at the same time, Metcalfe’s physical refusal to fully appear/assert himself within the same stage world as the women who are performing his memories (fantasies?) suggests an insidious and disingenuous dynamic of patriarchal control.
As with the prime donne compelled by the composer–conductor to vocalise certain words at certain pitches at very precise times within the ineluctable flow of the score (which is more often than not hurtling them towards their untimely deaths), there is something apparently automated about the whole performance, as if Solano and Dang are animatronics moving on tracks. They are certainly made to resemble life-sized puppets and, although they address the audience, they do not seem to see us. We get the impression that they’d say the same words in the same way whether we were there are not, and this is confirmed by the featuring of pre-recorded applause to fulfil the traditional function of the ‘claque’ — a hired body of professional applauders: a fully automated luxury audience.
The whole show feels strikingly un-live. In this, it appears to make reference to the work of David Lynch (yes, another of my obsessions). The performance has all the doom-laden theatricality of Lynch’s films, and Solano’s ‘no one is singing here’ echoes the MC from Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio: ‘There is no band. There is no orchestra’ — a warning which we immediately forget when we see Rebekah Del Rio sing, and then remember as she collapses and her disembodied song persists. A similar effect is produced in Kourtney Kardashian, when a ‘singing’ figure slowly appears from out of the gloom and we realise that the singing voice we were hearing is in fact coming from a speaker hanging around Dang’s neck. (A recording of Metcalfe’s mother from 1992.) Paradoxically, these ghostly pre-recorded voices are the only ones we actually hear coming from the stage. Everything else is spoken through a microphone and thus mixed into the thick fog of music, emanating from somewhere above us. For all we know, this too could be a lip-sync.
The performers’ amplified voices are mediated in a very different way from those of opera singers — through machinery rather than through physiology/musicalisation — and yet there is a similar fetishization underway. Both performers speak English with non-native accents, in a slow, strange and sensual (likewise somewhat Lynchian) manner, accentuating the movement of their lips, tongues and teeth. Dang draws attention to her accent, her voice, as containing that of her mother and her mother’s mother, before insinuating that it might in fact be fake. The mediation of the microphone separates voice from body and threatens that bridge between stage and soundworld which is the magic of opera. Again, the resonances with Instagram culture are clear. Strangely, the only ‘real’ live sound that we hear is the rustling of the performers’ gold-foil gowns as they shuffle on and offstage.
Surface as Content
The gold foil is a neat encapsulation of the other dyad on which the show reflects, alongside the real and the fake: that of surface and depth. As I’ve perhaps already intimated, it doesn’t feel entirely accurate to describe it as a ‘deconstruction’ of opera, since the process at work is more one of subtraction. The show is concerned with surface, with superficiality. We are shown the trace— a thin patina or stain — that is left once everything else has been removed from the genre: glamour as substance. For the company, this is a sociocultural phenomenon, and the show quickly refocuses around ‘us’: the audience (or are we playing a part, as a stand-in for the fake audience of the fake opera?). This, it is suggested, is opera’s social and cultural value-added — its exclusivity, its excess — as a remainder, once all the art form’s more legitimate assets have been dissolved. At the same time, it also appears to be the proper ‘essence’ of opera as far as the show is concerned.
Alongside the gold-foil gowns, this surplus ‘operatic’ glamour is best represented in the form of a piece of gold leaf, ceremonially removed from an ornate box at a crucial point in the show. We are shown the leaf and told its value relative to the total cost of the production and of our tickets. It is then eaten by the performers, thus literalising the act of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and quantifying it in real terms. As an act, it is a perfect performative distillation of this concept; at the same time, like the concept itself, it is entirely superficial and ultimately redundant, only serving to further deconstruct the live art genre.
Like celebrity culture (and, perhaps, like opera), live art functions through the honest presentation of artifice — ‘art’ is, by definition, not ‘real life’, however much we might desire some kind of synthesis — and the artificial manufacturing of ‘reality’: ‘real’ actions, ‘real’ events, ‘real’ experiences. Thus, the key moment of empirical ‘reality’ — the act of eating gold leaf — functions, like the promise of autobiographical truth, as a baseline around which we can reconstruct some kind of authenticity from the piece’s excessive theatricality. Yet the ‘operatic’ frame within which these moments are presented — one of ‘vacant’ spectacle, consumption as performance, etc. — undermines any potential critical dimension to the act. Something had to fill that space and time. Something had to be purchased with those ticket sales. Something had to be enacted in order to make this a performance and not an exercise in nihilism. Despite its apparent decadence and excess, to eat gold leaf is, in some ways, the most minimal action that could be performed in order for the performance to fulfil its own conventions. It makes ‘a point’ about opera’s superficiality, thus fulfilling the demands of the critical live art performance. It avoids nihilism by choosing to make ‘a point’ rather than no point — to critique rather than merely dissolve into an affirmation of pure ambience — and yet the point it makes is so superficial that it does end up in a kind of nihilism.
Thus, when the performers excoriate the ‘opera’ audience for their passivity and complicity — consuming rarefied culture and elite commodities while the world burns — they end up excoriating their own audience: the people who have come to this studio theatre in Manchester to watch an experimental critique of opera (even more rarefied perhaps, even more exclusive and excessive than ‘the real thing’). These politics are themselves superficial, as banally necessary to the demands of the genre as the performances of authenticity, and again, as a kind of minimal effort as opposed to nihilistic inaction, they reflect the superficiality of the piece as performance theatre.
Thus, while somewhat depressing, this is all pretty effective and certainly not a criticism on my part; even if the company seem ultimately less concerned with opera per se than with a more diffuse idea of performative aestheticism and/or the Debordian Spectacle, Kourtney Kardashian is a singular manifestation of this diffuse idea. And this function of opera as ‘glamorous surface’ is genuine and pernicious. Clearly it is a cultural edifice that was partially designed and maintained to obscure the grotesqueness of the economic elite with spectacular rituals of humanity and humanism. Yet I’m not really sure that performances like Sleepwalk Collective’s survive their own critique any less scathed.
Moreover, there is much that is particular to opera that remains unexplored. Opera is claimed to ‘offer itself as … both the climax of, and promised escape from, the worst excesses of capitalism’, yet I would argue that opera’s relationship to actual capitalism — and in particular the contemporary excesses of neoliberalism — is an obscure one. If anything, the art form edifies a global elite through modelling pre-capitalist structures, allowing them to play act as feudal aristocrats whose superiority is a permanent, timeless fact, divinely granted, in keeping with the timeless demands of fate, social propriety and Aristotelian aesthetics at work in the narratives on display. This is infused with a curious nostalgia for bourgeois civic culture and even post-war social democracy (in some countries more than others), in terms of the sheer scale of these institutions, their central position within the city, their reliance on public funding and the vast collective endeavour behind each production. Opera is hardly the art form of late capitalism. Performance art, however…
The show is bookended with monologues that conjured up a favourite conundrum of mine: that of ‘real song’. ‘Somewhere, someone is singing’, we are told, ‘but not here’. Here, we encounter only fake fakes: a fake version of an artificial art form. Opera is fake song, ridiculous, unnatural, the result of years of expensive training. And this show is fake opera — all the voices mediated by technology, disembodied, a pose. But somewhere out there in the real world, someone is singing for real. We’re given the example of birdsong — natural song, real song.
But the fantasy of real song is just that: a fantasy. Music is art, and art is (by definition) not real life. Birdsong is not music, because music is a human concept; we might hear birdsong as music and call it ‘song’, but only because we are human. Still, operas invite us to imagine a place in which the song is real and not fake — a situation in which you can sing without immediately being transported elsewhere— and Kourtney Kardashian is no exception. In this sense at least, the show does capture something of opera’s deep structure, as well as its superficial allure.