Photo Journal: Is It Even an Opera? English National Opera's Gaddafi: A Living Myth Befuddles Critics | Playbill

Classic Arts News Photo Journal: Is It Even an Opera? English National Opera's Gaddafi: A Living Myth Befuddles Critics

"The old guard were cowering in their seats as the huge bass frequencies boomed out. Singing was conspicuous by its absence ... All we tended to get was a bit of shouting." (The Telegraph)
"It's not really an opera but could well become the Evita of this decade — a slick, sardonic and cynical treatment of recent history." (The Times)

"A breath of fresh air ... raises questions that are much more important about the world we live in." (musicOMH)

"It is not exactly opera but it makes the perfect PC (Politically Correct) musical." (The Independent)

"A total failure ... the kind of ill-conceived insult to one's intelligence which leaves you reeling at the thought that the ENO could have supported it. (Gramophone Online)

"Clumsy rhyme ruins for me, a daft tale of Tripoli" (headline in the Financial Times)

"A few brief songs emerged like brilliant shooting stars out of the aural putty, but the rest seemed to echo Bombay Dreams pickled with Holst's The Planets and a dash of crunk rap." (Evening Standard)

"No show this weird can be truly bad." (Associated Press)

Therewith, a sampling of the reception that English National Opera's season-opening production received in the press over the weekend.

"The audience isn't going to know what's hit them. It's not necessarily going to be a comfortable evening, but it will be a highly contentious, visceral experience." That was ENO artistic director John Berry, quoted by the AP last week, anticipating reaction to Gaddafi: A Living Myth.

He got that right.

The work was commissioned by ENO from Asian Dub Foundation, a music collective variously described as "dance/hip-hop," "exotic electronica" and "raga/rap." The music was composed for the strings and brass of the ENO orchestra, plus Arabic lutes and drums and various electronic beats, by the Foundation's Steve Chandra Savale (a/k/a "Chandrasonic"). The project was billed as the world's first rap opera when it was announced; in the event, the rapper engaged to play the Libyan leader pulled out (replaced by a popular television star), and the text is mostly spoken, or shouted, over the instrumental score.

Gaddafi was one of several seemingly radical ideas undertaken by Berry's predecessor, Sešn Doran — who was ousted as ENO artistic director last year amid increasing turmoil within the company — to attract to the house audience members who normally wouldn't consider going to the opera, a pastime associated with upper-class poshness even more in England than in the US.

(Of the other such ideas Doran had, the ones that went over best were a 2004 concert performance of Act II of Wagner's Die Walk‹re at the Glastonbury Festival, an outdoor rock event, and engaging filmmaker Anthony Minghella to direct Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The latter staging was a major hit, and has been imported by the Metropolitan Opera to open its 2006-07 season on September 25.)

It's too soon to tell whether new audiences are coming to the Coliseum to see Gaddafi (it runs in repertory through September 16), let alone whether they'll come back to see La traviata or even Philip Glass's Satyagraha.

But observers can, and do, argue about the work's quality and whether or not it belongs in the opera house. Most of the critics have plenty of praise for actor Ramon Tikaram's charisma and stage presence in the title role. But the rhymed-couplet libretto by Shan Khan was heaped with blistering scorn: "a sprawling series of bloody episodes," wrote the Evening Standard's critic, "heavy on tendentious flab, short on drama."

And is it an opera or not? Composer Savale told The Telegraph: "In terms of structure it is operatic, although there is no operatic singing. But it deals with some big, universal themes through the medium of music, so perhaps it is. But a question we are asking is why should opera sound a particular way?"

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