Newsweek Web, 4 December 2003
'Lost Highway' the Opera
Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has turned David Lynch's moody 1997 film noir into a musical theater piece that had its recent debut in Graz
Although composer Olga Neuwirth and Arnold Schwarzenegger come from the same town in Austria, they probably have very different ideas of what makes a good movie
Thirty-five-year-old Neuwirth would never consider turning "Conan" or "The Terminator" into an opera-or any other Hollywood blockbuster for that matter. Complex cinematic enigmas are more up her alley. That's why she tapped David Lynch's 1997 film noir, "Lost Highway," as the basis for a stunning musical theater piece which premiered-fittingly-this past Halloween, in her hometown of Graz at Helmut List Hall. (It will be performed again in Basel, Switzerland, next May and is being considered by New York's Lincoln Center for next summer.)
"What always touched me about Lynch's movies is the juxtaposition of everyday life and the mystical, the tragic and the humorous," said Neuwirth, who is as petite as Schwarzenegger is hulking. "[Lynch] knows the human condition." Not to mention its extremes.
"Lost Highway" dramatizes a peculiar mental disorder know as "psychogenic fugue"-that's probably why audiences and critics didn't now what to make of it at first (and still don't). In this state, the subject utterly forgets his or her past life and takes on a new identity somewhere else.
That's what happens to jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman in the movie)-although Lynch has no interest in signaling or explaining this clearly. Haunted by suspicions that his wife (Patricia Arquette) has a less-than-kosher past life and is sleeping around behind his back, Fred-who begins to see and have conversations with a Mystery Man (Robert Blake)-goes mad and commits a crime, of which he has no memory. In prison, he somehow metamorphoses into auto mechanic Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who begins a romance with Patricia Arquette, now playing a different role. The film's circularity and shifting identities are what attracted Neuwirth to the film.
"For me, Fred converts into Pete to try again, to have a better life, to be younger and more attractive to this woman," Neuwirth explains. "This is the horrible thing. No matter what, you remain a prisoner of your body and mind. You can't escape from yourself, your fears, your inner life." So much for self-help.
Neuwirth and her librettist, prize-winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek (one of whose novels is the basis of Michael Haneke's disturbing movie "The Piano Teacher") stuck very close to the screenplay by David Lynch and Barry Gifford, and the opera is performed in English. In the first half, much of the dialogue is spoken, but entirely sung during the psychogenic fugue. Much of the elegant direction, by Joachim Schloemer, a former dancer and choreographer, evokes the surrealistic atmosphere of the movie.
Neuwirth's kaleidoscopic score, however, is another thing altogether. The music is a phantasmagoric interplay of live and pre-recorded sound, electronics and ghostly fragments of Monteverdi, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, jazz and God-knows-what. In addition to the instruments you'd expect in an orchestra (in this case, Klangforum Wien, ably conducted by Johannes Kalitzke), there is a harmonica, electric guitar and accordion; the Mystery Man is sung by a countertenor. The only traditional "aria"-if you can call it that-is given to the seedy pornographer Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia in the film), performed by unorthodox vocalist David Moss. Switching hysterically from high falsetto notes to growling bass tones, Moss pummels a man to death (for smoking, no less) by the strength of his words alone. The multilayered soundscape somehow summons up all the avant-garde techniques of 20th-century music yet is always harnessed for devastating dramatic effect, and utterly absorbed into Neuwirth's own style. The sound continuously bends, twists and morphs-a perfect correlative to Lynch's reality-contorting dreamworld.
"My music must always be a riddle. I like to change musical structures very rapidly. There is never a theme you can easily latch onto. As in cinema, I constantly give different angles to my music. I repeat structures in different contexts. You don't always know the source of the sounds; sometimes the echoes are more important. In Lynch's films, people appear then disappear-at first you don't know why. I do this with sound." The composer also loves the idea of sucking the listener into an inescapable vortex. "There has to be a different kind of psychology of NOT knowing what is going on. That's why I'm so close to Lynch."
"We are totally flattered that they turned our movie into an opera," said Barry Gifford at the opening-night party, speaking on behalf of himself and David Lynch, who was not able to attend. "Ms. Neuwirth's music is entirely appropriate, suited to the spirit of the movie."
But what exactly did Neuwirth create? American soprano Constance Hauman, who sang the roles played by Arquette, gives it a shot: "I'm in awe of Olga. She's such an original voice and has created a new medium. Her 'Lost Highway' is not really opera and it's not really musical theater. It's a unique category of its own. It's an overlapping of so many realities and a fusion of all kinds of different styles, which many composers today aren't brave enough to use."
Neuwirth herself, who studied with modernist giants Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono-but refuses to be part of any "school" or use any compositional "system"-is flabbergasted by the lack of imagination many of today's composers flaunt shamelessly. "So many are not courageous today," she says. "No one tries anything out, and just dish out these polished surfaces so no one can criticize them. Their skills are high, but what we get as listeners are only these tidy, neat packages. Where's the edge, the roughness, the invention? Where?"
Where? Somewhere in the winding labyrinth that is Venice, where Neuwirth makes her home. Her next opera is about pedophilia.
© 2011 Joachim Schloemer