The Marriage of Figaro, and Kim Kardashian. If this combination sounds incongruous, it is perhaps because of the cultural value attached to opera in the twenty-first century, fitting into a wider valuation of classical music as “difficult” and “inaccessible”. The Marriage of Figaro, however, is a comedy that at the time of its first performances was notorious for its sex jokes. Figaro is fun. Figaro is bawdy. Have we really forgotten that? In that case, the drastic measure of throwing together Kim Kardashian and Mozart might just be the perfect way to bring back an understanding of this opera as the hilarious piece of art Figaro was meant to be.
This plan sounds like it would only work if the result is cripplingly funny. A similar approach to the life of Playmate Anna Nicole Smith in the 2011 opera Anna Nicole fell flat as it failed to move beyond a patronizing middle-class judgment of Smith, who had died of a drug overdose four years earlier. Fortunately, The Marriage of Kim K combines a hilarious libretto by leoemercer (which shows that monosyllabic swear words actually fit the music really well really often) with an in-depth knowledge and admiration of Kim Kardashian as both a celebrity and a cunning businesswoman.
The Marriage of Kim K revolves around four couples negotiating their own and each other’s marriages. Beth and Mo, a twenty-first-century married couple, watch TV — Beth is a fan of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, while Mo prefers opera. As they fight over the remote control, the audience is shown back-and-forth glimpses of Kim Kardashian and her husband Kris Humphries, and of the Count and Countess in La Nozze de Figaro. Stringing the scenes together is Figaro, a vlogger/singer-songwriter who reflects on his own upcoming marriage to Susanna.
The first swear word was a shock to many who are familiar with Mozart’s original, but I appreciated the updated approach. Director Stephen Hyde moved the production beyond slapstick by creating humorous, original encounters through the use of live video footage on stage. Figaro, here in the role of camera crew, filmed Kim Kardashian for her reality TV show, and the Count and Countess for the Figaro DVD. The footage he filmed was projected live on the wall behind the actors, allowing the audience to watch along with Beth and Mo. Video on stage is a tried and tested approach, but one that is still difficult to pull off without glitches. This production, too, had some issues in getting cameras to work on time, but fortunately at the most crucial points the audio-visual links held up. What might be less conspicuous to the audience was the vital backstage use of cameras: as the actors cannot actually see the conductor (or hear the orchestra) and vice versa, the conductor relies on a video link to follow the singers. Unfortunately, this might be one reason why several of the cast members repeatedly got their timings wrong.
Oddly enough given that he is the title character of the original opera, and video technology is essential to the production, Figaro (Jack Trzcinski) felt rather superfluous. In the first half, his character is given very little attention, and the narrative flows quite adequately without him. In the second half, Figaro reveals himself to be one of the dime-a-dozen singer-songwriters throwing themselves out on Youtube, including mediocre singing skills, awkward strumming on a guitar, and wobbly lyrics. The problem is that Trzcinski plays this character rather too well, which made his two solos awkward interruptions: the audience had to listen to two less-than-average pop songs in the midst of an opera, which rather detracted from the more compelling writing that surrounded them.
Aside from these songs, all of the music is taken from the original opera, arranged by Clem Faux. This made apparent something of a flaw in Mozart’s famous octets: a crowd of people each singing about their particular woes makes it impossible to make out anything that’s being said without surtitles. The Marriage of Kim K cleverly plays with the fact that not many people can actually make out what is being sung in an opera, by making Beth switch on the subtitles on her TV — causing the singers in La Nozze de Figaro to switch from Italian to English. Unfortunately, this also showed exactly how impossible it is to follow the narrative of Mozart’s octets without surtitles. Though the criticism of Mozart’s approach is valid, not rectifying the problem here was a mistake, given that it is essential for the audience to understand a new narrative. It was simply impossible to make out exactly why Kim Kardashian and Kris were fighting when both other couples were bickering as well. The orchestra similarly overwhelmed singers at key moments: Figaro’s major announcement towards the end of the opera was missed by all as he was drowned out by the orchestra.
The first half of the opera was hilarious; the second half turned didactic. This transition was exactly as abrupt as it sounds, and for me this was mainly bewildering. Incomprehension fell as Figaro stepped in at the end of the first act and merged the three worlds of living room, opera stage, and Kim’s house: as the lights for the intermission turned on, the audience was left (literally) asking whether this was the end of the show or not. It was not, and when the production resumed it was suddenly set in a postmodern supermarket — an unlikely place to find Kim Kardashian if ever there was one. From here on, the opera became a critique of consumerism and the commodification of love. Unfortunately, it was precisely the juxtaposition of high culture versus unbridled consumption of another person’s love as entertainment, and their coming together in spite of the apparently jarring incongruity, that made the first half so enjoyable. Be prepared to laugh and enjoy yourself at this opera, and then to be told off for having done so.
For more information about ‘The Marriage of Kim K’, please visit the opera’s Facebook page.