Andante, 12/2003

Lost Highway
Olga Neuwirth's ingenious, engrossing, astonishing opera gets its world premiere in Graz.

For her second opera, Olga Neuwirth has written a love story based on a popular movie - a score with arias and duets, a leading role for coloratura soprano and a nice mad scene to end it all. Would this be another of the conventional, neo-tonal dramas in the vein of Dead Man Walking, A Streetcar Named Desire and Sophie's Choice?
Not this time. Welcome to Lost Highway.
Some people at the premiere commented that the opera is virtually indistinguishable from David Lynch's film of the same name, and I automatically assumed this was meant as a compliment. Just as Lynch's film has its passionate defenders and foes, so will Neuwirth's opera. She has done something so daringly original, it can only breed controversy.
The libretto, fashioned by Neuwirth and novelist/poet Elfriede Jelinek, is drawn almost verbatim from the screenplay by Lynch and Barry Gifford. The 1997 film remains Lynch's most enigmatic work to date. What makes Lost Highway the film so maddeningly difficult is that it clearly has a discernible storyline (as opposed to Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which is best appreciated if you let it wash over you like a dream and don't try to look for linear narrative), but its distinct sections seem, deceptively, like two different, vaguely-related stories.
The central character is Fred, a 30-ish jazz musician married to an enigmatic, smoldering beauty named Renee. Dark omens intrude on their seemingly placid lives in upscale Los Angeles: a mysterious stranger at a party claims to know Fred - and challenges reality by answering Fred's home telephone while he is simultaneously standing in front of him; videocassettes showing footage of Fred and Renee sleeping in their own bed start showing up on their doorstep. One morning, Fred finds a tape showing himself sitting amidst parts of the dismembered Renee. He is arrested and convicted for her murder.
Waiting on death row, Fred transforms into Pete, a young auto mechanic who has no idea how or why he has turned up in Fred's cell. Pete is released to his parents and returns to work. The gangster and pornographer Mr. Eddy brings his Cadillac into Pete's shop for a tune-up and introduces his favorite mechanic to his girlfriend Alice, a blond bombshell who is a dead ringer for Renee. The two are soon having a torrid affair, sparking Mr. Eddy's violent jealousy. Alice coerces Pete to join her in a plot to rob her friend (and possibly former pimp), Andy, which will net them enough to get away and make a clean start, but things go horribly wrong and Andy is killed in a spectacularly gory accident.
At this point, things become truly surreal: at Alice's insistence, Pete drives to the desert hut of the Mystery Man; Pete then chases Alice to the Lost Highway Hotel, where he finds her in bed with Mr. Eddy; Pete morphs back into Fred and slashes Mr. Eddy's throat with a knife handed to him by the Mystery Man; Fred drives back to his house, rings the bell, and announces "Dick Laurent is dead" into the intercom (the opening scene of the film shows Fred receiving that very message on the other end of the intercom). The tale ends with the police chasing Fred/Pete as he drives over an endless highway; the film's final image mirrors its opening, with the road's yellow dividing lines slashing through darkness.
Lynch has stated that his film is meant to be viewed as a psychological fugue, an endless cycle in Fred's mind: Fred loves Renee so desperately to that he actually becomes another person in order to have a second chance with her - only to be the recipient of the film's most clarifying line: "You'll never have me," which Alice snarls at Pete before he turns back into Fred.
Whereas Lynch's film takes repeated viewing to piece this together, Neuwirth clarifies it all through her music.
For the Fred/Renee part of the story, the actual music is mostly instrumental underscoring. Fred (a non-singing role) and Renee speak and whisper; Renee has passages of Sprechgesang. The dialogue between the couple can be excruciatingly banal ("You don't mind that I'm not coming tonight?" "What are you going to do?" "Read." "Read? Read what, Renee?"), but Neuwirth makes the subtexts clear through her sonic landscape, a sort of ambient incidental music.
When the story blurs from the present into the Pete/Alice fantasy, the heightened reality of opera kicks in: Alice is a coloratura soprano; Pete's high baritone melismas slide into falsetto; the Mystery Man is a countertenor with insinuating, high-flying vocal lines; Mr. Eddy shifts vocal gears so fast, he sounds like a car radio on which someone is turning the dial, passing through stations broadcasting an evangelist preacher, Little Richard, Yma Sumac and a professional wrestling match.
Neuwirth's complex score is performed by live orchestra (including electric guitar and antiphonal harmonicas) augmented by electronic instruments and pre-recorded sounds; vocal lines are sometimes doubled by sampled recordings of the singers which have been digitally altered. (For instance, a character might sing a sort of duet with a tape and then be echoed by an instrument in the orchestra.) Dotted with reverberant gongs, scratchy violins, the repetitious click of a cracked LP and quotations from various sources (including "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" from Weill's Threepenny Opera and the pop tune "This Magic Moment"), the music is a perfect complement to the slow burn of Fred's anxiety and paranoia over Renee's vague past (it is intimated that she was a prostitute and made porn films), and paves the way for the psychological cataclysms about to occur in a way at which the film can only hint.
As academic as it may sound when described, Neuwirth's writing is surprisingly passionate: its emotions sneak up on you with a strangely cumulative effect.
The first joltingly original sequence comes with Fred's transformation into Pete, a multi-layered concerto of live screams mixed with distorted tapes. The auto mechanics are represented by appropriately mechanical music; Alice is introduced by sleazy sax; Pete's rapturous sex with Alice (staged in the same spot where Fred suffered an attack of impotence with Renee) is tinged with a heavenly celesta; the Mystery Man parodies bel canto coloratura excesses when he tells Pete in no uncertain terms that Alice is lying. Alice's "You'll never have me" is as pungent as any climactic revelation in opera, and Fred's disquieting final scene, another virtuoso bout of screaming, is as gripping as any mad scene.
There are several thrillingly ingenious transfers from screen to stage. One is the violent monologue in which, in the film, Mr. Eddy pulls over a tailgating driver and pistol-whips him while ranting about highway safety. In the opera, the tirade is delivered to a man foolish enough to be smoking in a no-smoking zone in Mr. Eddy's presence. But not a hand is laid on him: he is beaten by the sheer brutality of Mr. Eddy's voice, the smoker bouncing off walls and floors and taking punches delivered by no visible force. In another scene of the film, Andy absorbs what appears to be about half of a glass coffee-table top into his forehead; here, he gets smashed into a plate glass window and sticks against it, slowly sliding down as his blood streams down the glass. (Alice's only comment: "wow.") Al and Ed, the two cops sent to investigate the mysterious videotapes and later tail Pete, become increasingly intertwined - to the point where you can't tell whose limbs are whose, like some Hindu deity which has just stocked up at McDonald's. (As their tightly choreographed moves become more complicated, office supplies and junk food get confused and a half-eaten hamburger winds up in a jacket pocket.)
Joachim Schloemer proved himself an expert sorcerer with his astonishing staging. In what must have been a stage manager's nightmare, body doubles permitted characters to be in several places at once, and the ever-moving walls and platforms (which facilitated the quick change of Fred into Pete) of Jens Kilian's labyrinthine set, gorgeously lit by David Finn, were at one with the time-warped layers and dimensions of the score and story.
Many of the roles were conceived for the talents of their interpreters, and one could harly imagine a more committed cast. As Renee/Alice, pulchritudinous Constance Hauman excelled equally in the latter's stratospheric vocal writing and the former's Sprechgesang , and she threw so much sex appeal around stage it's a wonder she didn't incite a riot. (A game girl, she even participated in the filming of the porno videos which permeate the scenes of Andy's and Mr. Eddy's deaths.) A greaseball with apricot hair, David Moss was monumentally repulsive as Mr. Eddy and gave an unforgettable performance of what must be some of the most difficult music ever conceived. (He related that virtually all of the insanely complex role was notated, with only a few opportunities for improvisation.) Vincent Crowly lent a handsome, brooding presence as the self-tortured Fred, and George Nigl showed a light lyric baritone as alter ego Pete. A pair of countertenors, Andrew Watts and Kai Wessel, contributed greatly to the surreal atmosphere as the Mystery Man and Andy, and Grayson Millwood and Rodolfo Seas-Araya stole their scenes as the co-dependent cops. The hapless Smoker, Gavin Webber, was so physically charged that he seemed to defy gravity (and common sense). Conductor Johannes Kalitzke drew a superb performance from Klangforum Wien, frequently sending eyes to the orchestra pit in search of the sources of the indefinable sounds landing on ears.
Some sequences of the opera go on a bit too long, and certain passages of text are obscure without a thorough knowledge of the film, but these are molehills in the shadow of an Alp. Everyone concerned with the production seemed to recognize the enormity of Neuwirth's innovation and accomplishment and gave their all to be a part of it.

Larry Lash