Amidst the conventional billing of student productions of well-known plays, this term sees a radical adaptation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, now entitled The Marriage of Kim K. The new opera tells four stories at once, each revolving around a marriage. It is in part the story of the count and countess from the original, in part the story of the breakdown of Kim Kardashian’s first marriage, and in part the story of a couple (Mo and Beth) who watch these stories on TV. The fourth story is Figaro himself, a young vlogger, whose encounter with these other stories influences his own decision to marry.
There has been a tremendous buzz around this opera not least because it enters into a wider debate about the increasingly blurred boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. An paper on “The Post Modern Post Modernism Post Modernity” by Martin Irvine of Georgetown University proposes that many of artworks being produced now take this ‘always already’ mix of sources as the standard departure point. He explains that networks and convergence are not seen as abstractions, but are living conditions where ‘hybrid’ is practically obligatory. And ‘hybridity’ pretty much characterises The Marriage of Kim K.
The play brings together two seemingly disparate artistic cultures into an intriguing on-stage clash, mimicking the dispute between Mo and Beth, facing their own marital challenges in a uniquely comic way. Professor Dunbar at the University of Oxford, researching jokes and humour, claims that “The best jokes are thought to build on a set of expectations and have a punchline to update the knowledge of the listener in an unexpected way.” This is more than taken up here: The Marriage of Kim K is a piece that from its inception toys with audience’s assumptions about art, and what can and cannot be done.
The writer behind the project is Leo Mercer, a budding dramatist whose recent libretto for The Prophetess, a reworking of Henry Purcell’s baroque masque Dioclesian, received stellar reviews. His latest work promises to be equally entertaining, with strong actors skillfully bringing out the work’s nuances, partly born out of Mercer’s fascination with modern ways of telling old stories. Talking to Mercer about his creative focus on re-creating old classics, he elucidated that he sees social media as providing “ways to bring the past to life in a way that speaks to us, while literary tradition offers brilliant techniques by which to make new art out of contemporary life.”
The Marriage of Figaro, with its playfully humorous take on themes of love, is an excellent choice for this kind of adaptation, and the production team behind The Marriage of Kim K have managed to surprise me both in their execution, and with their innovative promotional campaign. Self-effacing videos of the production have been released weekly, their counter-intuitive marketing imitating the piece’s ability to undercut stereotypes, be they about contemporary opera or celebrity culture.
On one level it is definitely a production that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When it comes to technicalities, however, the joking stops. There’s a serious side behind the humour, particularly in the unexpected realization that Mercer’s English text has to fit with a score which originally had an Italian libretto. And far from being a direct translation, the new plot means playing with a startling juxtaposition of different characters from contrasting time periods, in a rush of activity that deftly captures the frenzied pace of contemporary life.
The first half of the production is the strongest is answering the question I had about “How are they going to pull this off?” The cast squeezes out the core values of the traditional opera and presents them to the audience in a new light. And the comedy of the first half arises at least in part from the surprise of seeing these two worlds — eighteenth century Vienna and twenty-first century America — clash and collaborate.
It is refreshing to be drawn into live music that interweaves with the drama to form part of the tight storytelling. What remains to be seen is whether or not the audience will turn out to be the same mélange as the styles the production draws from. Is it possible to have fans of Kim K and opera intersect both on and off the stage? It was always going to be a risk that the combination would alienate rather than bring together fans from both sides of the so-called “Great Divide”. It is in taking these risks, however, that barriers are broken down, and new lenses created from which to view the great works of the past. The Marriage of Kim K, like the on-going debate about whether it is even useful to differentiate between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, is likely to keep people talking even after the curtains have come down.