The Surprise Brilliance of a Milli Vanilli Art-Opera

Girl, you should know it’s true: A highbrow piece of opera-inflected theater based around the lives of pop music’s most infamous lip-synchers is possible. Look no further than W.O.W., a work-in-progress project that recently wrapped a run at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts Media House. The brainchild of Joe Diebes, David Levine, and Christian Hawkey–all residents of Fort Greene, if you’re keeping geographic score–W.O.W. is a supremely entertaining, thoughtful, odd piece of art that combines live music, technologically facilitated operations of chance, contemporary dance, A/V trickery, and an immersive audio component that’s akin to a lo-fi version of Sleep No More. (Okay, that last one might be a bit of a stretch, but audience members are free to move around various spaces within the BRIC building, lending the performance a uniquely free, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sort of vibe).

There’s plenty to love here: The vocal score, for instance, which occasionally indulges in nonsensical wordplay (breaking the words Milli Vanilli down into new, increasingly weird combinations), or–for W.O.W.’s climax, mimicking the effects of a CD skipping, with the opera singers’ voices breaking, stuttering, and eventually collapsing into mere hiccups of noise. (It was a CD malfunction that led to Milli Vanilli’s exposure as frauds; skip to the 25 second mark on this clip). The performance is helmed by a female narrator who leads the audience through the space, loosely sketching the biographical details of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus (and often drawing attention to the factual discrepancies lurking on the internet, ensuring that we may never know the real Milli Vanilli story). The actor-dancers portraying Morvan and Pilatus wordlessly enact the drama, moving from the early days of the group’s formation, through spats with manager/creator Frank Farian, an angry press conference (pictured above), and the final indignity of a Grammy awarded and then rescinded. An actual art exhibition within the BRIC space serves as the backdrop for an interlude that refers to the video for Girl I’m Gonna Miss You (below).

All of this is to say that W.O.W. is a fantastic piece of genre-bending performance, and it’ll be exciting to see where it goes once it’s been polished a bit more. (If RoseLee Goldberg is looking ahead to 2015’s Performa biennial, she should keep this one in mind).  I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I first heard about this Milli Vanilli-inspired opera–too often projects of this ilk survive purely on the frisson between low- and highbrow, like a sandwich that combines Beluga caviar with Spam. But W.O.W., unlike Milli Vanilli, is the real deal; it takes a scrap of our shared pop cultural history and invests it with an entirely new, entirely unexpected meaning.

Stephen Fry Examines Why Music Moves Us to Tears With ‘The Science of Opera’

Over the years, I have come to accept the fact that I am moved to tears more than most. And through examining just why I find my tear ducts unhinging so frequently—and so easily—I’ve found it has less to do with my melancholy disposition and more to do with my thin exterior of sensitivity. The tears I shed aren’t always ones of sadness or despair, but more often than not of a kind of joy in experiencing something moving—the way one might get goosebumps or chill when in the presence of something awe-inspiring. But when it comes to music, that sensitivity is amplified and to be honest, you don’t want to be near me when Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” begins playing.

But these visceral, physiological responses to art often manifest themselves in many outward reactions, and in ‘The Science of Opera’ actor Stephen Fry and comedian Alan Davies test just what happens when they hook themselves up to sensors while attending Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House. With a panel of researchers from University College London, the show explores the physiological reaction of watching the opera—heart rate, sweat, and “various other emotional responses.” Speaking to the distinction between the physiological effect music, neurobiologist Michael Trimble says that it’s “different from all other arts,"  with other mediums not striking up the same emotional chord.

Watch the video below to see just how Frye and Davies’ were unconsciously stirred by the performance.

Andrea Bocelli Duet With J.Lo Is Actually Not Terrible

I know what you’re thinking. What is Andrea Bocelli, blind opera singer and fan favorite to grandmas the world over, doing recording a duet with Jennifer Lopez, Princess of Spandex And Auto-Tune? But hear me out. Rather, here it out. The song is actually quite sweet. 

J.Lo joined for Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Maybe, Maybe, Maybe in Spanish), a lovelorn duet on his new album, Passione, which debuts January 29.  

According to the blog, AntiMusic, Bocelli sings in six different languages on the album (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Neopolitan, and Portugese) and deuts with Lopez, Nelly Furtado, and the late Edith Piaf. 

You can listen to Andrea Bocelli and Jennifer Lopez in Quizas, Quizas, Quizas below:

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The Not-So-Modern Failures of the Opera

Do you want to know why young people don’t love opera? Really? Why they don’t go no matter how prettily you stage Wagner? Lean in. We can whisper it sotto voce, all molto allegro: it’s because they’ve never liked the opera itself that much.

No, really. Young people were not fundamentally more tasteful or smarter or gifted with prodigious attention spans 200 years ago.

While it’s probably a mistake to think of human history as an elaborate costume party, as a general rule, in any age, young people like places where they can wear less clothing than usual and have a higher than average likelihood of having sex. This explains why Marquee keeps packing people in (and nightclubs still would even if they all decided to only play Puccini), and the Met, alas, does not.

Opera houses did pack young people in, once. But that’s just because opera houses were the hot club of the 19th century.

Of course, the way Struldbergs insist on disguising themselves means that we can’t ask many people from the 19th century their feelings on opera in its heyday. Fortunately, we have some little books to draw from, like War and Peace, the main thesis of which is “opera is so freaking lame, you guys.” Natasha—a young woman and, debatably, the heroine of the novel—attends her first opera and reflects:

It was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight, which to Natasha seemed feigned. "I suppose it has to be like this!" she thought. She kept looking round in turn at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the seminude women in the boxes, especially at Helene in the next box, who—apparently quite unclothed—sat with a quiet tranquil smile.

Dude. She’s quite unclothed. The important part of this isn’t that Natasha realizes her peers are just pretending to be delighted by the opera, it’s that La Belle Helene is quite unclothed. There seems like a possibility that the beautiful seminude opera-going ladies in Tolstoy’s time might have been a draw for some men. No. No, maybe young men were just there because “Dit-moi que je suis belle” is like a shot of heroin right to their hearts.

Spoiler: they weren’t. And Edith Wharton is on that like The New York Times! She describes men going to the opera, circa 1870 in The Age of Innocence by saying:

“When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the opera the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should have come earlier … New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was “not the thing” to arrive early at the opera.  … (the boxes always stopped talking during the daisy song)… all the carefully crushed, white-waistcoated, button-holed flowered gentlemen who succeeded one another in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were a product of the system.”

Well, any club promoter can tell you, first you get the models, and then you get the bankers.

And those waistcoated men fell uncharacteristically silent for one song. Try to imagine a 21st century person’s reaction to going to a movie where the audience was silent only for one scene. It’s unimaginable. Or it’s imaginable, but in the way the apocalypse is imaginable. Though when you take that people were talking throughout into account, it explains why operas’ librettos tend to repeat the same point an average of 20 times.

The chatter was aggravating to some people at the time, too, but only people who authors wanted you to know were awful. In Where Angels Fear To Tread, upon attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor one irritatingly moral character tries shushing everyone around her—and they “were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor.” 

When the Civic opera house—now The Lyric—opened in Chicago in 1929, it was considered shocking that the boxes faced towards the stage, rather than forming a horseshoe pattern. That meant that people in boxes would actually have to watch the opera, rather than waving to their friends and strolling around to talk to them.

So, it all really fell apart when wealthy young men stopped being able to walk around talking to eligible semi-nude women. Especially because that really diminished the likelihood of having super-hot affairs with them.

In Madame Bovary, Emma Bovary rebounds from her last failed relationship almost immediately after meeting her old acquaintance Leon at a local opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor (it was a hot ticket of the day). Leon thinks the opera is terrible, but praises it as soon as Madame Bovary reveals she likes it—because she loves romance novels (if it strikes you that “disliking opera” is a shorthand for a 19th author proving a young character’s intellect, it’s because that’s a thing that keeps happening.) Then they have sex. In a carriage. For an entire day.

The last good piece of media propaganda the opera had was suggesting that if you go, you might see Richard Gere hold Julia Roberts’s hand while she wears a red ballgown. That is nothing compared to suggesting that if you go to the opera, you will soon be having 12 hours of sex in moving vehicles.

Even Natasha, who thought the opera was absurd, is seduced by the dashing, married spendthrift Anatole while attending. She proceeds to have a tryst with him. Not in a carriage, though. Why? Because she’s a lady. And, of course, the opera is where Newland Archer first spies Ellen Olenska, who he then obsesses about for the rest of his life.

All this seems obviously superior to “watching Wagner in silence behind very elderly, very clothed people who are slowly falling asleep.” At least, superior in a passionate way, obviously not superior in a “longevity” way. Or a “well rested” way, if that’s your thing.

Of course, there is still a group of young people who do love and attend the opera, but they tend to be the kind of oddball young people who quote Tolstoy to prove their points. That is to say: they’re young people who have a sneaking suspicion that they might have an easier time getting laid in a prior era. And if you gave them the option of attending the opera now or attending it during its prime? Most would opt for the prime years.

It will be a similarly grim but determined group who will insist on hanging out in the joyless 22nd-century imitation of Marquee. They’ll drink vodka tonics reverently, and, like Richard Gere’s character in the Traviata scene of Pretty Women, turn to a 22nd-century woman and say, “People’s first reaction to Far East Movement is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If you don’t love ‘Like a G6’ immediately, you may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of your soul.” 

And yes, maybe they will be sincere about that, or as sincere as they can be. But being there, and being reverent, won’t be anywhere as enjoyable as it would have been in the time when it was designed to be taken less seriously, and, in essence, just be more fun. And, to paraphrase that musical genius of our time, Cyndi Lauper, young people just want to have fun. 

High Meets Low: Anna Nicole Smith, ‘Atonement’ and Narcocorrido, the Opera

What do Anna Nicole Smith, the Mexican drug cartel, and Ian McEwan’s tragic love story Atonement have in common? No, we’re not referring to the betrayal, dysfunction or even the class-driven drama of these high profile debacles – although, all three certainly share these “attributes.” We’re talking about opera. Believe it or not, all are inspirations for current – or soon to come – operatic productions. Contraband and Betrayal, the narcocorrido-based tale of one female drug smuggler’s journey across the border and killing of her lover is currently on run in Mexico City. Anna Nicole: The Opera written by the guy behind the Jerry Springer opera, will premiere at the Royal Opera House in London in 2011, and Craig Raine’s reinterpretation of McEwan’s Atonement will hit the stage in 2013 at a yet-unnamed German opera house.

Hence, the ultimate in Western high culture meets the paradigm of low – and in the case of Anna, subterranean. Why the current pop insurgence? Perhaps the best answers comes from the creators of the works themselves:

• On “Contraband:” “[The] story had all the elements of high drama necessary for opera, almost like a modern-day Mexican “Salome,” Los Angeles-based visual artist Ruben Ortiz Torres and Composer Gabriela Ortiz told the LA Times. “But the presence of a contradictory myth and the context of a volatile drug conflict in Ciudad Juarez added challenging twists to the project.” We’re not sure if “twists” is the most appropriate descriptor, but we won’t deny the entertainment factor.

• As for “Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera:” “It is a very sad story – a larger-than-life American story, as was Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West,” shares Elaine Padmore, the director of opera at Covent Garden. “It will be a slice of our times – of America in the pre-Obama days.”

In fact, it’s just like “the work to Zeit-oper, the German subgenre of opera popular in the 1920s and 30s, in which socio-political issues of the times were tackled,” The Guardian continues. “We have Lucia di Lammermoor, so why not Anna Nicole Smith? She also led a diva-like life.”

• And “Atonement:” “It’s not a chamber piece, that’s for sure,” Ian McEwan told the Times. “You can do some very big dramatic things with this. If you were thinking of a large-scale opera then what springs to mind is 380,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk [a key setting in the story]. That would be quite a choir…. The more I thought about it the more I thought that it had themes of yearning and thwarted love which would make it very operatic.”

Operatic, indeed. After all, as much as we tend to think of genre as the stuff of blue blooded grandeur, we also can’t deny that the drama fueling opera has never been pristine. Just look at Puccini’s classics, Mascagni’s staples: “Madam Butterfly” tells the story of a 15 year-old girl married and abandoned. Cavalleria Rusticana’s about unwanted pregnancies and cold-blooded murder. Not too different from the words of tabloids, the narratives of Hollywood.

Industry Insiders: Roman Milisic & MJ Diehl, Style Warriors

They are not your average married couple. The dynamic and outspoken duo that call themselves House of Diehl has a daughter, a party-filled life in New York City, and an avant-garde fashion company. Roman and Mary Jo have redefined the American dream and cultivated their own cutting-edge vision of what life and fashion mean. To them, life is fashion, especially when it’s deconstructed and made into something revolutionary. Roman and MJ have taken their high-energy, one-of-a-kind show, Style Wars, on the road, dazzling fashionistas, style mavens, celebs and plain old party people across four continents. Style Wars kicks off with a whole new season of Scotch Tape binding, safety pin fastening, and jewel bedazzling this November. After watching the duo give a lecture on “how to cheapen your couture” at an event they call Glambulance at 92YTribeca in downtown Manhattan, they sat down with me for a vibrantly colorful chat.

Tell us about Glambulance. Roman Milisic: The Glambulance is about taking thrift-store clothes and turning them into high fashion. Some of the stuff we see on the road during Style Wars because people are doing this around the world in their bedrooms and basements. MJ Diehl: Some people think to shop at thrifts is a problem. No, it’s power.

What is Style Wars? RM: Style Wars is style battle championship tour. It’s a fashion competition. MJ: It’s a live competition. Designers go head-to-head MC-style to create amazing, off-the-hook high fashion in what used to be five minutes, but now it’s four.

How did you guys conceive of the idea for the show? RM: Mary came up with the new process for creating fashion that was called “Instant Couture.” Instant Couture was born out of the deconstructionist idea that there is more than one way to make fashion. This is to make it live and make it reflective of the time and the place where you’re at. And you can pull people up onstage and take off their hat, pull it upside down or inside out and make it something brand new and cool. Style Wars was us saying, “We’ve done this and we’ve done it well. Let’s throw down the gauntlet and see who else can do this.” MJ: Everything has been done, overdone. You want to see another little black dress? Fuck it! The only thing you can do that’s interesting is how we create art, how we create fashion and what the materials we reuse are.

Where are you taking Style Wars this season? RM: We’re starting in Miami on November 4 at LIV at the Fontainebleau. Then on November 7, we’ll be at Don Hill’s in New York. On November 13, you can find us at Opera in Atlanta. On November 18 we’re at Cinespace in Los Angeles followed by Mezzanine in San Francisco on November 21.

What does the winner receive? MJ: Each battle has a different prize. Typically their prizes are better than what we get paid to do the event. We always feel like we should be competing. RM: For the last show we did in London, the winner got a Vespa. We barely broke even. Also, Surface magazine is offering a spread to the winner.

Who have you designed/styled for? MJ: While we’re known for Instant Couture, we rose to fame quickly because of our couture collections that were nominated for awards and won for the Triumph International Fashion award. Our designs have been pulled by Madonna and Gwen Stefani. RM: We’ve done editorials with David LaChapelle. MJ: I think the main thing is, you can’t do fast fashion without doing real hard, long-form couture. We’d already quickly created a reputation for that that was very well respected, but the problem was that it’s expensive to produce your work and get it out there. A lot of my motivation as a designer, even an award-winning one, was create opportunity for great talent and get it out there.

What else does House of Diehl do? MJ: Besides Style Wars, we do buy-order couture, ready-to-wear, and also special events. RM: I’d say that we do events and we do fashion. Let’s not spread ourselves any thinner than that. MJ: We could. You can never be too thin, right?

Who are your favorite designers? MJ: Other than ourselves? Alexander McQueen. There are only a few people out there that do anything worth looking at or worth reproducing. RM:You know I’m always disappointed by? Martin Margiela. He plays the part of “I’m a deconstructionist,” but we throw away every idea he has. MJ: It’s this bullshit game that conceptual, intelligent fashion has to be ugly fashion.

How did you two meet, fall in love, get married, and start a company together? RM: We used to go to events first and foremost. If there was an open bar anywhere in New York City, we fucking knew about it. I was working with David LaChapelle as his editor, and Mary was one of his muses. I was talking to Mary at one of his parties. MJ: We would be at the same events, same parties. RM: Mary thought there was something more to be got from a group of people coming together, and that was the notion of “let’s create something meaningful from a community.” That’s where the community of couture events came about. MJ: I think a lot of House of Diehl is about loving fashion but being bored to shit with culture.

How is being married and working together? RM: It’s interesting. MJ: Working for yourself means you can never quit. You can’t really tell yourself to fuck off. The same thing goes with your partner or your better half. RM: We are our own posse. MJ: The fact that we’re always doing the same things at the same time allows our relationship to continue. RM: Sometimes I wonder how couples can actually do it the other way.

What are your go-to places in New York? RM: We always go back to Don Hill’s because it’s so down-and-dirty. It’s a gritty place where you are just going to have a lot of fun. MJ: Dirty, filthy. I don’t like pretension. I do like the old, classic Balthazar. We got secretly married there. Oh and of course, Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Industry Insiders: Tony Daly, Master of the House

After-hours house parties in the Hollywood Hills are infamous the world over, and nightlife aficionados Tony Daly and David Judaken considered just that while outlining the concept behind LA hot spot, MyHouse. Co-owner Daly talks fully-functioning ovens and bathtubs in a nightclub where soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo stops by to douse crowds with six-liter bottles of champagne.

What’s your position at MyHouse? I’m the co-owner and operating owner of MyHouse. My partner, David Judaken, previously owned a club called Garden of Eden, and I came in with him on the newly-remodeled MyHouse. I also run the other clubs our company operates, which are Crimson, Opera, and Mood. I focus my efforts on our marketing and outreach.

What was your first job in the industry? When I was 21 years old, I worked in Las Vegas for the MGM Grand, in the public relations department, and when I got out of college, I started doing promotions and marketing for Garden of Eden. Eventually I moved on to clubs — A.D., Lounge, Pearl nightclub, and I also did the opening of Avalon in L.A..

Anyone in the industry you look up to? My partner David Judaken is actually my mentor. I promoted at his club at 22 years old, and I’ve gone into partnership with him over every other nightclub owner in the city because of his work ethic and integrity. In a very dysfunctional business, to have integrity and to do everything the right way is rare; I’m trying to model myself after that. He leads by example.

What’s the concept behind MyHouse? The best parties in LA typically tend to be house parties, so we had a big space with an upstairs mezzanine and when Dodd Mitchell came in, he looked around he said, “Let’s make a house,” because that’s where the parties are. We literally tried to make a house, not just a house theme. We went as far as building a kitchen with ovens that work and we bake cookies. Our bar has a stove top, a coffee maker, and we have a sunken living room with TVs that are hooked up to DirecTV and Playstations. Our upstairs bedroom has a bathtub with skulls that shoot water, and there’s a huge king-sized bed. Every piece of furniture is original and different, not just club booths. We have movable furniture and shaggy area rugs in a nightclub, which is pretty insane. You feel like you’re in a house, so we’ve held our meetings there and we’ve done tasting for our restaurant there because we have a functional kitchen and dining room. At night, all of these areas are used for bottle service or seating elements so people feel like they’re actually partying in someone’s home.

Are themed nights a big part of the MyHouse experience? We’re trying to do Guitar Hero Tuesdays, and we’ve had an Xbox party using all the TVs, but mostly we use the game consoles for private events. We want people partying and having fun like it’s an actual nightclub so we haven’t really broken out the Wii post-10pm.

Aesthetically it’s set up like a house, but is there still a club vibe? Yeah, the DJ doesn’t even spin on a typical booth, instead he’s on a custom-designed DJ area where he puts his equipment on top of what would look like a table in someone’s house. We have areas with platforms where people can stand and dance. During the construction process, Dodd wanted to go completely “house,” but we explained that we needed things like backs on the couches because in the club environment people like to sit up on the couches. We tailored the couches so people could sit or dance on them, but they don’t look any different from the other furniture in the house.

What’s the best night you’ve had at one of your clubs? It was a Wednesday night at MyHouse, and we had Cristiano Ronaldo in. He’d just brokered his deal with Manchester United, so they purchased two six-liter bottles of Ace of Spades Champagne, which is roughly the equivalent of nine bottles of Champagne in one bottle. The crowd was going crazy and when the bottle came out, we played the Star Wars theme and Ronaldo took the bottle and sprayed the entire crowd — with a very, very, very expensive bottle of Champagne. The bottle is huge and when he’s shaking the thing, it sprays from one side of the dance floor to the other. That was a fun night, but that doesn’t happen every week. It was raining Champagne.

Notice any negative trends in the hospitality industry? One of the negative trends in LA is a saturation of nightclubs in the marketplace, which affects the longevity of a club. Whereas the Garden of Eden, for example, was around for ten years, now we’re looking to stay with top quality guests for about two years, and then you have to go into another tier of promotion. Within three or four years, you almost have to remodel your club or else you become obsolete. This happened because the city has allowed too many nightclubs and given out too many entitlements.

What are your favorite places to party and dine in L.A.? I enjoy dining at our new restaurant East, and I also like a smaller Italian restaurant called Pace, which is off the beaten path and not very Hollywood-sceney. As far as clubs go, occasionally I’ll stop by Villa, because it’s a very small club and the owner is a good friend. It’s a 90 to 100 person club so it’s a complete departure from the big club environment and you can go with a couple of friends and actually have a conversation while enjoying the energy.

What’s the scoop on the new restaurant, East? East is another partnership between Syndicate Hospitality and Dodd Mitchell, which opened on September 2, and Dodd did the design. It’s an Asian/international fusion restaurant, and we’re doing several sashimi dishes, but no traditional sushi. Our sauces will be very inventive with a Latin flavor, and we’ll also have over 40 cooked items which range from lamb, to prawns — so we have land, sea and air covered.

How do you wind down when you’re not working at one of your clubs? I wind down with poker. Occasionally I’ll go and play because it keeps your mind away from the crazy lifestyle for a bit. I work day and night and it’s almost like I have two jobs. My life is essentially in the hospitality industry, whether it’s Sunday morning or a Wednesday afternoon. You’re constantly being called or put to work, so I really don’t have any down time, but occasionally I’ll go play some poker at one of the casinos.

Chicago: Top 5 Meals to Make You Randy

imageSo good, you’ll want to skip the movie.

1. Signature Lounge (Near North Side) – Pretend you’re lord of the city from the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building. 2. Opera (South Loop) – There’s nothing more romantic than contemporary Chinese food served in an old film reel vault. 3. Geja’s Café (North Side) – Nothing quite like fondue to get you hot and bothered.

4. Avec (West Loop) – This’ll impress her: Long, stylish room serves amazing food and wine from knowledgeable servers. 5. Hot Chocolate (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Treat a party of eight to a meal in the private room and let the games begin.