Raves for Facing Goya in the US

The US premiere of director Ong Keng Sen's take on Facing Goya features (from far left) Thomas Michael Allen, Aundi Marie Moore, Suzanna Guzman, Anne-Carolyn Bird and Museop Kim.
The US premiere of director Ong Keng Sen's take on Facing Goya features (from far left) Thomas Michael Allen, Aundi Marie Moore, Suzanna Guzman, Anne-Carolyn Bird and Museop Kim.PHOTO: JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY

Ong Keng Sen's take on Michael Nyman opera will be Singapore arts festival's opening show

More than 400 people stood to applaud Singapore director Ong Keng Sen's revival of the Michael Nyman opera Facing Goya on Sunday evening (Monday morning Singapore time).

A comic and surreal commentary on deluded science and the value of art, it premiered to a full house at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina, as part of the ongoing Spoleto Festival USA.

The production is the first collaboration between Ong and well-known film composer Nyman, who wrote the score for the 1993 Academy Award-winning film The Piano.

On Aug 12, Facing Goya will open the Singapore International Festival of Arts, of which Ong is festival director. The Singapore show will feature the same five singers, including soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, a regular with the Metropolitan Opera. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra accompanied Sunday's performance, led by resident conductor John Kennedy, but in Singapore, he will work with Singapore Symphony Orchestra musicians.

Nyman, 70, was in the audience on Sunday. During the intermission of the two-hour show, he went over to Ong and hugged him. Later, he went on stage with the cast and joined in the victory bow.

The British composer saw Facing Goya revived after more than a decade. Earlier in the day, he had said at a pre-show talk: "There was a production in 2000 in Spain, one or two in Germany, none in the last 10 years. We've been rescued or doomed by Spoleto."

Among possible concerns was the fact that Ong had shaved half an hour off the original production, which Nyman first put together with librettist Victoria Hardie just as scientists were finishing a map of the human genome.

Facing Goya was cutting edge at the time. It compares the clearly outdated science of craniometry, or deciding a human being's merit by the size of his head, with Hitler's idealising of a perfect blond Aryan body type. It also holds up for ridicule the idea that genes can determine the worth of a human being and maybe even be used to clone artists such as early 19th-century painter Goya.

At the pre-show talk hosted by CBS correspondent Martha Teichner at the Charleston Library Society, Nyman said: "For me, it was an amazing research project. It's an opera that as soon as you've written it, it's out of date because the opera is not moving, but science is.

"I foolishly talked to Victoria about updating the text with current biological thinking. That was not a brilliant idea. In the time I take to write that, I could write another opera."

Ong, 51, told Life!: "It's not about the factual situation, but the ethics of the situation. You could go to the Bahamas and clone a human being, the laws depend on the cities you're in."

He has been a guest artist at the Spoleto Festival - recognised as one of America's premier performing arts festivals - several times since directing composer Bright Sheng's Chinese myth- inspired opera The Silver River in 2000.

Ong was invited to direct the Nyman opera last year by Spoleto Festival director Nigel Redder, and thought the opera would also be perfect to launch the arts festival in Singapore. "It's a time-travel story which deals with the art market, Hitler and genetics, biotech, which are relevant to Singapore."

Referring to large-scale investment in biotechnology in Singapore in the noughties, followed by recent investment in the art market via large fairs such as Art Stage Singapore, he said: "It's about the trajectory of Singapore. Now we are in the world of money, what can we sell? We can sell art, we can sell science, we can sell ourselves."

He also enjoyed being able to make his mark on a show that has been performed only a few times and recorded once in 2002.

Teichner, who caught the dress rehearsal as she had another engagement on opening night, raved about the show and its "conceptual bombs", especially the way Ong interpreted the ideas of Nyman and Hardie.

The director's additions include giant jewelled skulls, which reference British artist Damien Hirst's 2007 work For The Love Of God, a diamond-studded platinum skull which reportedly cost £14 million to make and was offered on sale for more than three times that much. The exact sale price and buyer are unknown.

Nyman openly calls the work "disgusting" and challenges the notion that this sort of thing is art.

In Facing Goya, the singers wear 45cm-tall sequinned skulls to cap the absurdity of the geneticists proclaiming that their science can define creativity. Thanks to costume designer Anita Yavich's trade secrets, these weigh only 1kg, allowing wearers to sing and dance.

Their get-up echoes the dynamic set-up by the composer and librettist in Facing Goya as well: lyrics about racism and Hitler are set to sprightly tunes which several audience members hummed as they left the theatre.

Nyman would have been pleased. Before the show, he said: "The most flattering thing for a composer of an opera is to be the thing singers are cursed with and can't forget."

akshitan@sph.com.sg