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Karen O and Stop the Virgens. What is there to say about it?
For starters, I can say that I’ve now seen an opera at the Sydney Opera House. It was a rock opera and not a traditional one. And even at that, calling it a rock opera is a bit of a stretch. Then again, maybe it isn’t. What exactly is a rock opera? Seriously; I’m really not sure. How is The Who’s Tommy any different than Pink Floyd’s The Wall or any other concept album? If a collection of songs tells a story in a set order, does that make it a musical? Does it become an opera by virtue of having little to no dialog spoken in between songs?
In a sense, Stop is an opera. Costumes. Art house style. Hard to understand words. Harder to follow plot. Impressive visuals. And a very full sound. The whole thing was amplified, which in a way feels like cheating. I get the reasons behind it, but on some level seeing an electrically amplified musical performance in a room designed so acoustically brilliantly as to not require electronic amplification seems to lessen the experience ever so slightly. But with a drummer and a percussionist, not to mention electric instruments, there is no way that a singer – especially one with such a sometimes soft voice as Karen O – is going to compete.
As for a review and my impressions, I will start by hitting the points that every other review of the performance seems to hit. That is to say The Visuals.
The costumes were rather basic, but they conveyed a message in their simplicity that would have only been muddied by additional frills and details. Two women wore black robes and donned black circular head-pieces. They came across as the nay-saying high priestesses. The equivalent to the fire and brimstone itinerant preacher. The chorus of virgins behind them wore white. Simple, bright, synthetic tunics that were to the point, illustrating only a color with which to draw character details from. Poor? Perhaps. Cult-like? Implied. Child-like? Seemingly so, also amplified by the identical blonde, chin length simple cuts most of them donned. Naïve? Simple? Innocent? All of this is what could be derived from the lack of adornment.
And there were the lead virgins. Slightly more complex variations on the chorus, and with costume changes. At one point simple brown tunics and orange bandanas. At one point in white, but with translucent tops. Generally in white. Generally dancing in convulsions, or frenetically but making slow progress across the stage, or connected to each other.
And then there was Karen O, who appeared as the feathered Nordic priestess, as the tinseled glam goddess, and in white as the female youth virgin cult reinvention of Gandalf the White. She sang into a mic hidden inside a hollow animal horn.
The stage was simple, black reflective surface and a screen receiving projections of forest scenes and rotating irises and other such visual treats.
That the show was visually stunning is generally agreed by reviewers. It comes across well, stark, beautiful, simple in ways and yet effective and weighty.
But as far as all of the reviews I’ve seen go, that is the end. Not one of them seems to bring up one mention of things that might be considered relevant to a musical story. That is to say, no one seems to mention the music, or the story. Or the plot, the themes, or more broadly the point of it all.
There is a simple explanation for that – I don’t think anyone has any clue as to any of it.
With the exception of the final song and the one-off line here and there, the lyrics are complete unintelligible. The music, while good, is gritty. And without words, any plot or purpose is hard to decipher. It is hard enough to get a concept album when you know the lyrics and the story. Without either, you could just as well be watching an opera in another language.
I enjoyed Stop the Virgens. I honestly did. The climax of the work is powerful, and in combination with the resolution song (the one with understandable lyrics), it serves as a kick to the gut followed by a tender hug. But that it is getting critical praise and not being criticized as obtuse, inaccessible, and confusing seems to come mainly from the name behind its creation. Karen O, front woman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Were this not created by such an indie darling, I don’t think anyone would be hearing about it.