If a science textbook were set to music, given a peppy chorus and a twist ending, we would have Facing Goya, which opened the Singapore International Festival of Arts on Tuesday.
Like reading a science textbook, it is at first hard to get into this experimental opera about genetic engineering, though the experience is ultimately rewarding.
On a minimalist stage cleverly transformed by lighting and video projection into diverse explosions of image and colour, an Art Banker (sung by real-life art fan Suzanna Guzman) seeks to identify the skull of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, which was missing when his grave was opened in the late 20th century.
Her search takes her to 19th century craniometrists, who judge a person's worth by the size of his skull; art critics who support Hitler's genocidal ideal of the blonde and blue-eyed Aryan physique; and finally to 21st century biotechnologists who peg people according to their genes and profit by this profiling.
Hummable tunes enliven a heavy libretto which has the singers mostly spouting pseudo-scientific fact - "The sequence of the gene is always the same" - and relentlessly hammering in the dangers of using science to pigeonhole human beings.
This is understandable in context: when Facing Goya was first shown in 2000, scientists were mapping the human genome, speculation was rife over what genes could predict about a person and composer Michael Nyman (The Piano, 1992) and librettist Victoria Hardie wanted to point out the absurdity of this new doctrine.
Fourteen years later, these issues are less in the news, which might explain why director Ong Keng Sen's revival of Facing Goya this May in Charleston, South Carolina, confounded American reviewers.
I caught the opening show in Charleston and find Facing Goya improves on second viewing. To enjoy the experience, one has to accept Nyman's and Hardie's desire to transcend opera conventions and move beyond a defined narrative carried forward by dialogue. Adequately prepared for disjointed scenes more surreal than the traditional operatic tragedy, one can enjoy the smart staging and absolutely stellar cast, notably a passionately convincing performance by American singer Guzman as the Goya-obsessed Art Banker.
Among my favourite scenes involves the four singers dancing around stage with giant, sparkly skulls on their heads, underlining the absurdity of their so-called scientific doctrine. As they dance, the lights and video projections converge on a giant screen behind them to show coloured dots bobbing in helical spirals which echo the shape of DNA strands.
Apart from the Art Banker and a small appearance by a resurrected Goya (baritone Museop Kim), there are no discrete characters on stage. Kim, tenor Thomas Michael Allen and sopranos Anne-Carolyn Bird and Aundi Marie Moore play pseudo-scientific trends of different eras instead, which might disconcert opera fans who come cold into the performance.
The music and vocals make up for this. The purity of Bird's bell-like voice lends aching emotion to the heartless parroting of lines such as "the negro is closer to the monkey", while Moore's expressive, warm tones add poignancy to her portrayal of the voice of compassion and reason. Allen makes racism, chauvinism and all manner of prejudice funny with his jaunty portrayal of a Hitler fanatic and later a money-obsessed biotechnologist.
What really captures the crowd is the last act, where Kim shines as a resurrected Goya who resorts to various tricks to recapture control of his identity. This act incorporates typical operatic themes of romance, dance, comedy and a showdown in a few short minutes, and ironically proves the Nyman and Hardie experiment a success through failure.
Facing Goya succeeds once it wears its heart on its sleeve - as the libretto implies, art is of the heart and no matter how glittering the skulls, the head is never as engaging. It is strange that the creators did not follow their own maxim for this opera. Or was that the point all along?
Book tickets for Aug 16 show at www.sistic.com.sg