A good story says something about human nature in a given era; a great story says something about human nature in any era.
Michael Nyman's opera "Facing Goya" strives to be included among the greats. It looks at the influence of art, pseudoscience and money on human frailty and moral failures over the course of three centuries.
The opera, which opens tonight, concerns an art banker and Francisco Goya enthusiast who discovers the long lost skull of the Spanish Romantic painter. Legend has it that Goya asked to have his skull removed to prevent it from falling into the hands of craniometrists advancing bogus theories of race and intelligence based on skull and brain measurements.
The banker takes the skull through history, meeting the 19th century craniometrists; the Nazis in the 1930s, who used their own genetic theories to promote eugenics; and 20th century bio-tech companies, who wish to patent genes and clone Goya in order to replicate his talent. The banker must decide whether or not she can sell her beloved painter's skull for a quick profit.
It's a huge narrative, one that requires human elements and emotions to keep it from being a purely intellectual exercise. That's part of what Ong Keng Sen, the acclaimed Singaporean director of "Facing Goya," hopes to achieve.
"My main challenge has been to engage the audience without it becoming just abstract," Ong said. "I would say that in terms of staging, I try to bring ideas across more directly. It has a very pop feeling, with the mixture of pop and classical."
That direct pop feeling Ong describes is part of the style of Nyman, a Minimalist who lets rhythm and repetition drive his music. Conductor John Kennedy describes Nyman's work as "Mozart meets The Beatles."
"He has all of these beautiful tunes, but they're driven by punchy rhythms from rock and roll," Kennedy said. "There's the presence of a strong groove, the presence of an electric bass that gives the orchestra a bottom that has the signature of rock and roll."
Nonetheless, Kennedy notes that the score had to be reorchestrated by Nyman to make it work for the upcoming production. The Michael Nyman Band (for which the original version of "Goya" was scored) consists of musicians who can cross over into the film, pop and classical worlds with him. But the festival employs an orchestra.
"One of the things that somewhat limited it was that it was orchestrated for his group in such a way that it would be hard to replicate for most traditional companies," Kennedy said. "We've expanded the string section and simplified the winds in such a way that's more typical of what you'd expect of a regular opera house. Consequently, we've given the piece a new life in the future that will make it more effective for orchestras to reproduce."
The orchestration helped the musicians find an emotional core and bring out the humanity of the characters, something that would make them "more than talking heads through different periods of history," Kennedy said.
"Facing Goya" belongs in the tradition of hyperlink narratives, which weave together several smaller stories into a mosaic that makes a larger point about a given theme: David Mitchell's novel "Cloud Atlas" on the connections between human kindness and maliciousness throughout the ages, Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" films about the ideals of Europe and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" about the lasting effect of cruelty toward children.
" 'Facing Goya' uses this structure to ask questions about our own humanity through the perspective and notion of creativity in the persona of Goya," Kennedy said. "Goya represents not just an artist, but a creative spirit, an intellectual daring enough to look at the world around him and speak up about what was wrong."
In this case, what's wrong is the perversion of genetic study into a pseudoscience used to justify racial prejudice. The opera debuted in 2000, four years after Dolly the sheep was cloned, and the opera raises questions about the use and misuse of human genetics.
"What emerges from that process is that there's no such gene for creativity," Kennedy said. "Who we are happens through our experiences."
Ong Keng Sen said he was interested in the nature/nurture and reason/emotion dichotomies.
"I personally feel that there is a lot of talent in nurture, which of course does play with elements of nature," Ong said. "There is a belief that it is in the gene sequence, and if there is something there, should doctors be allowed to control it and profit off of it?"
Ong also believes that the opera takes on a new life in a post-Occupy Wall Street era, given that the main character is a banker who stands at a moral crossroad.
"It's about the moral corruption in the banking world," Ong said. 'The central character is an art banker, and in the end, she does sell her soul to the financial world, all to make a quick buck. Putting that question in the larger story of history, art and science helps give context to all of these questions."
Ong cited Goya's painting "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," drawing comparisons to those who make cold, rational decisions.
"If you are just involved in reason, not in humanity or emotion, the rationality will get you to try to create a perfect world and trade your humanity," Ong said. "If you become too involved in reason, you become a monster."
Max O'Connell is a Goldring Arts Journalist Student.