I watched the streaming of Olga Neuwirth’s new opera Orlando (libretto Catherine Filloux and Olga Neuwirth) today and have a few thoughts – mostly on the libretto.
Which is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, though the story here continues past the end of WW2 and into our own era. The early scenes follow the novel relatively closely. The events at the court of Elizabeth I when the young and dashing page Orlando catches her eye and is granted a title and land, is followed by him meeting the Russian princess Sasha on the coldest winter in living memory, having his heart broken, and withdrawing to his country pile. Waking up from the stupor, he declares I will become a poet! which leads to his messy aspirational sponsorship of the Prominent Poet Mr. Greene who patronizes him (but whose patron he is) and who eventually writes a parody of Orlando’s long work-in-progress poem The Oak Tree. Dispirited, Orlando cheers himself up by furnishing and learning how to appreciate his ancestral home.
While in Constantinople as the ambassador for the King Charles II, Orlando falls in deep sleep and wakes up a woman. His persistent suitor from previous life, a duchess, continues the pursuit once Orlando as a woman is back home in England, but she is revealed to be a man. This character as far as I can tell was excised in the opera (correct me if I missed her). She (Orlando) continues wanting to write and hosts the great writers of the era, including Pope, Dryden and Addison. Critic Nick Greene still lives (and is getting uglier and uglier features as the opera progresses – he is the ugliest in our own age). While male Orlando’s poetic efforts were mocked because he was an aristocrat, female Orlando’s right to write anything in the first place are questioned because she’s a woman. Still, she presses on – it helps that she’s a wealthy aristocrat — publishes The Oak Tree, gets an award for it, wins a legal dispute over her country mansion (this is fiction after all), meets a feminine male sea captain campily named Mermeduke Shelmerdine. The masculine woman is attracted to the feminine in the man, and he by her butchness, and they marry. The novel ends there, which is the day it was supposed to be published in Oct 1928. The opera aims to continue until the day of the performance, Dec 2019.
There are some very effective scenes in this, novel-based part of the opera. The narrator is initially a very good MC (played by Anna Clementi; the originally scheduled Fiona Shaw bailed out, and I don’t blame her). Throughout the opera she could be the narrator of Orlando, maaybe for a second here and there Virginia Woolf herself, but as the story continues, she’s a narrator who definitely lives today and uses some very contemporary vernacular. In the Elizabethan era, she reads the probably most famous quote attributed to the queen “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, which was great: I thought, okay, this libretto gets it, this is a good sign.
The three fairies of Modesty, Purity and Chastity fussing over the sleeping Orlando’s bed before she wakes up as a woman is fine touch, and the narrator and Orlando are given some good lines about this unfortunate outcome. Visit to a hairdresser now takes an hour… skirts are nothing but a bother… but do I really be chaste year in year out?… etc. The female Orlando is at first clad in a ridiculous pink dress adorned with gajillion flowers – fine, the contrast is the point, sure. The chorus is singing Woman: fold upon fold which is accompanied by appropriately sensuous imagery. Narrator then lists all that Orlando won’t be able to do anymore – and it’s a long list. All she’ll be able to do is pour tea to the lords and ask Do you like it. Next scene: Orlando as she offers Pope, Dryden and Addison sugar cubes for their tea, which quickly leads to a scene of one of the men proposing, propositioning and pestering.
Did I mention, there’s a countertenor singing some sort of Guardian Angel role throughout. That doesn’t exist in the book, and there is no need for it in the opera either. Yet here we are. Even in Orlando, an opera based on a book written by Virginia Woolf for and about her former lover Vita Sackville West, a man has to be cast in a prominent role. Whenever a scene would complete itself, there he’d go, commenting AGAIN as if he mattered.
Because let us remember the basics. Woolf wrote this fanciful multi-century ‘biography’ as her affair with Vita was ending. Both women were roughly what we’d now call female homosexuals – Vita very actively so, and her devastating previous relationships with Violet Trefusis lives on in a number of extraordinary cultural creations, including the Sasha-Orlando story – and both were married to men who they loved (asexually) and who loved them back (same). (While Leonard was as far as anybody knows hetero, Harold Nicolson had numerous affairs with men – while also remaining in a fairly good marriage with Vita. It’s possible that Marmaduke is based on him). But let us not get bogged down in Bloomsbury promiscuity: the point is, lesbianism and any kind of homosexuality was then considered an ‘inversion‘ of sorts, an innate reversal of sex and sexual preference – your inner male desire for the female sex makes you a female invert – and this is probably in part what’s behind the story of the changing of the sex through the centuries. What it also comes from, and this more directly, is Vita’s inability to inherit the ancestral home Knole (look this castle up, will you) due to her sex. It went to some male cousin instead. As far as I know, women still can’t inherit most of the hereditary peerage titles in England, not even if they become trans men.
So potentially, Orlando the opera could have tapped into this and have been indeed an opera about the freedom of the female sex to do whatever it damn well pleases – write and publish, inherit property, become ambassador or soldier, in addition to the more traditionally gendered activities and choices. But this opera is that only up to a point – when it dissipates into I’m not sure what. There is a streak of that, I can’t deny it – Orlando’s struggle to have his/her artistic creation taken seriously does appear at a few key places, and the Mr Greene figure stands for all cultural gate-keepers and powerful critics, and I am guessing some of his features comes from the composer’s and librettist’s own experience with gatekeepers. The Knole business is completely removed from the story. In fact Vita and Virginia are both cast aside about half way in, as the opera moves to some more bizarre areas.
When the history reaches the Victorians the narrator suddenly changes tone to a very different, didactic, humourless, contemporary one. “Patriarchal family was considered ideal family, but there is significant increase in child abuse in the Victorian era,” she declaims while the femininely dressed Orlando observes a chorus of children in pyjamas and the video projects an image of an adult man at a door and a child looking from the pillow. Increase in child abuse, compared to what? Or is it increase in the reporting of child abuse? Middle classes or all classes? Child labour is not of interest, I take it? “Children need care and protection” is an actual line that Lindsey was given to sing in this scene. The narrator goes for some time about the victims of incest feeling guilt and the family members’ inability to stop abuse, and it’s all rather puzzling and feels parachuted. Wise of Fiona Shaw to dodge it. (The production has also lost the original director, Karoline Gruber, and ended up being finalized by Polly Graham, the artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera.) “From now on, Orlando will be committed to rewriting the history from the point of view of the victim and outsider”, says the Narrator, to which I say, sure, let’s go.
But then we get the video sequences that rush us through the milestones of the century. The POV is roughly Anglo-European with the inevitable excursion to some US and Vietnam War imagery and the selection is fairly narrow, whole bunch of Europe (not to mention the world events) ignored. We are rushed to 1980s, back in England it seems, and punk is happening, there’s a girl in plaid suit who Orlando ends up kissing for a long time, but she is soon gone from the proceedings.
The party segment, which is meant to show that all kinds of desires and loves and bodies are allowed to flourish now… is a lucklustre affair. The dominant voice is the performer Justin Vivian Bond, who is meant to be Orlando’s ‘child’ in our own era. Really? You couldn’t find a gender-non-conforming female like dunno any number of living writers or filmmakers or someone like Megan Rapinoe or Kara Swisher or some modern equivalent of Storme DeLarverie or even some of the male drag performers from the RuPaul school of sashaying? The statements declaimed during the party are feeble too. There’s a lot of “born this way” Lady Gaga parroting and yet “it’s glorious to be a they”. “Fuck the patriarchy”: is that the most eloquent that “Orlando’s child” can get?
Justin Vivian Bond is one of those people who insist they be called a “they” and claims s/he is “non-binary”. Everybody else is happy to live the life of a gender stereotype, the classification suggests, except for the “they” people. They have stepped out of sex and gender by fiat, you know! And yet women can’t self-identify out of oppression: women are oppressed because of what their bodies are, what their reproductive function is, what their height and strength is (most women can be easily overpowered by most men), and yes also what gender roles awaits them upon birth. The world will still correctly sex the women who will be raped or who need to gestate offspring, the exploitation will proceed undeterred however we decide to ‘identify’. Plus, any male should be allowed to wear dresses and look like JVB, without having to do anything about their pronouns or body. That is the more radical thing, that is what the Orlando children would do, people like David Bowie, Robert Smith, Boy George, Quentin Crisp, Grayson Perry, Russell Kane.
The inability to inherit, become a writer and other obstacles shown in this opera that Orlando faces are actually relatively lucky ones. In Western Balkans and other parts of the world, this thing still exists which is called selective abortions: early detection of a child’s sex – there’s science for that, you only need to find your way to a private clinic in another jurisdiction – leads to the getting rid of female fetuses. So those girls had no chance to “identify” in any way. As soon as the material reality of their sex was determined, they were doomed. I don’t need to hammer on about the femicide (every two or three days anywhere in the world a woman is killed by a man she knows, often an ex or current partner) and various other things that happen to women that have nothing to do with how individuals declare themselves but with their sex.
So… trans activists are Orlando’s children? Not really. Defiant, non-conforming women who overcome societal limitations posed on them are Orlando’s children, as well as women who *survive* – there are so many of us now who are surviving and were never meant to, who are finally finding poetry and pleasure in our lives, wrote Audre Lorde. This should never be forgotten.
I conclude that sadly the second half of Orlando the opera which paradoxically aims to step out of the charmed life of the high classes that populate the first part – is somewhat uninformed, oblivious of the current lgbt conversations, massively bourgeois (you have to adore the scene in which the haute couture Comme des garçons-clad chorus and extras shouted WE ARE THE PEOPLE) and rather purposeless. Is it about liberation of women or is it about every single thing under the sun, climate change, the liberation of men from their own gender yokes, exploitation of workers in Amazon dot com depots? (There’s a brief scene showing workers in a huge warehouse filled with goods, packing and shipping things: good idea, but underdeveloped, because this scene quickly ends, as does the contemplation of working conditions in low-wage jobs.) You could make an argument that all that is connected to the liberation of the female sex, but 1) the libretto doesn’t do a good job of it, and 2) opera should have a focus of some kind.
At least there is Kate Lindsey’s vocal stamina (and legs) to hold it all together, just about. We’ll always have that.
The official description of Orlando by the Vienna State Opera