Erika and I went to see Conan and the Stone of Kelior tonight. It’s the last night of the run of the pasticcio opera from Kyle McDonald at Alumnae Theatre. There’s a final matinee Sunday that I would have attended except we’re having a couple of friends over, so this was the best choice.
I knew Conan was going to be a difficult and complex show, so I wanted to wait until the end of the run, to give the company and the singers a chance to figure it all out.
It’s the most fun I’ve had at an opera in a long time. Why?
I say “campy” employing Susan Sontag’s use of the word. Kyle’s take on Conan –the hero you may know from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films or from the Weird Tales created in the 1930s by Robert E Howard—may involve fun but it’s not disrespectful. They’re making fun with Conan, not making fun of Conan, a key distinction that Sontag explains. It’s excessive, over the top, not to be mistaken for realistic. While we see a huge body count, it’s never scary because it’s unbelievable, verging on silly in its artificiality.
Kyle not only adapted Conan for the stage, he used many of the most popular operatic melodies to tell the story. We heard the Soldier’s Chorus from Faust for a bunch of soldiers. We heard the duet from Pearlfishers at a moment when two people (who had been fishing) were singing the tune about friendship unto death, as we watched Conan and another swordsman fighting unto the death. We heard the anvil chorus, while soldiers beat swords against their shields. We heard the Papageno-Papagena duet, but reframed not to sing of marriage and little children but fighting and killing, sung just as sweetly as Mozart could ask: and the death was that we died laughing. We got the scene when Rigoletto is acting nonchalant while casing the joint looking for his daughter, only this time it’s someone whose bum hurts from being spanked by Conan. When the courtiers do their fake “ha-ha-ha” I couldn’t resist hahaha-ing along (although Erika gave me a look). Seriously, where else can you do something like that? We also heard re-purposed parts of the Messiah, the Mozart Requiem, Pictures at an Exhibition, a Rachmaninoff Prelude all used to vivid effect.
At times it seemed like a cast of hundreds, possibly because people kept getting killed. I noticed that Brittany Stewart for example played three different roles, each one getting brutally killed. Singing aside, she died really well. My gosh there was a lot of stage-fighting, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes really quick. I don’t think Brittany was the only one to have every one of their multiple characters die. The body-count was marvelous, not at all bloody, and because it was camp, not troubling in the slightest.
While I don’t pretend that I followed all the twists and turns of the story –including an additional twist brought on by a cast-member missing the show due to an illness—the great thing is, I don’t care. I felt a bit like one of the people I might have dragged with me to one of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas, trying to sort through the characters and motivations: but seduced by the music. I was too busy having fun to really worry about the details of the plot.
Kyle was totally deadpan, never tipping us off that it was in any way comical. Everyone was in deadly earnest. For example, in the first part we were told that we could take pictures or short videos, to share to social media, with the winner to receive a poster from the show autographed by the cast. Cute!
I nerded out a bit talking to Erika in the car about Richard Wagner’s critique in Opera and Drama (and she indulged me or at least pretended to do so…), when he said that while the original intention in the early days in Florence had been to employ music in making a dramatic form, they got it all backwards, instead using drama to make a musical form. Wagner may have redressed the balance somewhat, but he was still making music mostly. The point in mentioning this, is that Kyle’s direct approach totally swept us away, helping us forget reality for a couple of hours of romance and heroic story-telling.
I felt we were having fun watching a spectacle including belly dancing, puppets, sexy moments, scary moments, suspense and intrigue, all while having fun with familiar music. Erika commented that this was the most unpretentious thing she’s ever seen that’s associated with opera. But you get the idea. Kyle took the best elements of the Conan stories –the romance, the violence, the sexy clothes, the movement—and packaged then into something operatic. It’s not like anything you’d see from any other opera company in Toronto.
We also heard some good singing. Corey Arnold sang a version of “nessun dorma” that impressed me very much, even if I had the temerity to laugh at the end: when Corey collapsed in a heap due to some magical shenanigans.
A little later Corey pulled off something amazing. In the film Men in Black, do you recall the way Vince D’onofrio becomes the creepy bug, walking around as though he’s an alien with a dead human body loosely hanging on his bug body, as his dressing gown? Corey pulled off something like that, when –after dropping dead—a magician has a spirit walk into his body, bringing him back to a staggering semi-life. It was creepy and brilliant.
Kyle did so much yet I may not be giving full credit. Not only did he write the words, adapting all these bits of opera into a coherent whole, not only did he get his company Mightier Productions to produce this, the latest of his projects, but Kyle was also rolling around the stage as Conan, fighting, wrestling, killing, romancing, and also singing.
Although Robert de Vrij wasn’t present (due to the aforementioned illness) his performance was at least partially captured somehow. A miracle of technology? I suppose that’s the other thing to remark upon, that Diana DiMauro conducted the singers and a virtual orchestra, presumably synthed or sequenced, synchronizing the pseudo-orchestral sounds with the singers onstage. The only credit I saw in the program that might explain this is also attached to Kyle, where it says “Written, Arranged and Directed by.” I’ll ask him next time I see him.
I recall seeing a furor online a few years back when there was talk of plans to do a Wagner opera (perhaps a whole Ring cycle? I can’t recall) with synth instead of orchestra. Of course this is contentious depending on whose side you’re on. If you’re a musician, especially if you’re in the union, you take offense at the idea of being replaced. But opera is hugely expensive, and this is a way to save money and that means getting shows produced. People may not realize that the “orchestra” they hear in shows such as Les Miserables on Broadway or in Toronto was filled out by synthesizer keyboards. This is not so much the way of the future as long-established reality that’s decades old. But it’s still relatively new in the operatic world.
If you liked Kyle’s creation there’s a cast album. I was thinking of it but we left too quickly. We might still get it and if I do I may write about it some more.
And there’s one Conan performance left Sunday at 4:00 pm at Alumnae Theatre (click here for info).