Opera is renowned for its receptivity to the most intensely dramatic moments, which may be why there has lately been something of a trend in the world of modern opera to turn to celebrity headlines and reality TV for fodder—witness the mid-2000s phenomenon of Jerry Springer: The Opera as well as the more recent opera Anna Nicole, about the curtailed life of former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith, which had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last September. (At the New York City debut of Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Harvey Keitel played the role of Jerry Springer—I sure wish I had seen that.) Last November DM reported on the existence of a Toronto production of Rob Ford: The Opera.
So it may not be so terribly surprising that the brief and controversial career of Milli Vanilli would eventually become the inspiration for a serious opera. To recap for the uninitiated, Milli Vanilli consisted of Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, who under the guidance of producer Frank Farian became a German R&B pop duo responsible for several hits, most particularly “Girl You Know It’s True.” “Rob and Fab” didn’t have the best command of English, which prompted some observers to wonder about their verbal fluency on their songs.
As Wikipedia tells it,
The first public sign that the group was lip-synching came on July 21, 1989 during a live performance on MTV at the Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, Connecticut. As they performed onstage live in front of an audience, the recording of the song “Girl You Know It’s True” played and began to skip, repeating the partial line “Girl, you know it’s…” over and over on the speakers. They continued to pretend to sing and dance onstage for a few more moments, then they both ran offstage. According to the episode of VH1’s Behind the Music which profiled Milli Vanilli, Downtown Julie Brown stated that fans attending the concert seemed neither to care nor even to notice, and the concert continued as if nothing unusual had happened. In a March 1990 issue of Time magazine, Pilatus was quoted proclaiming himself to be “the new Elvis”, reasoning that by the duo’s success they were musically more talented than Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.
That last sentence is a doozy, illustrating the perceived need for the comeuppance Milli Vanilli would soon receive. Curiously, it would take more than a year for the ramifications of that lip-synch incident to become clear. In February 1990, Milli Vanilli was awarded the Grammy for Best New Artist; only nine months later did Farian reveal to reporters that Rob and Fab had not actually sung on any of the records (the real singers were named Charles Shaw, John Davis, and Brad Howell). Milli Vanilli’s Grammy was withdrawn before the week was out (the only time such a thing has happened). Arista Records dropped Milli Vanilli from its roster and deleted their album and its masters from their catalog, making Girl You Know It’s True the largest-selling album to ever be taken out of print. A court ruling in the United States entitled anyone who had bought the album to a refund.
If nothing else, the backlash against Milli Vanilli reeked of excess. The public vitriol was intense; Milli Vanilli was instantly transformed into a laughing stock, an easy punchline. Rob Pilatus spent most of the next few years battling substance abuse, and on April 2, 1998, he died of an overdose of alcohol and prescription pills in Frankfurt.
Milli Vanilli were victims of shitty timing, to some extent. Obviously their success came at a time when the delicate technology of CD playback enabled the possibility of an embarrassing “skip,” although really any fakery always has the potential to be exposed in a humiliating fashion; for proof of that, just watch Singin’ in the Rain. But the timing of the public’s perception of artifice versus authenticity would end up punishing Milli Vanilli. When their story broke, nobody had any way of knowing that the most talked-about band in the country not even a year later would be Nirvana, whose very existence represented a punk-y rebuke to the likes of major touring acts like Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, etc. Whatever else they were, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were perceived as being very strongly anti-artifice, and they and several other Seattle-based bands would spearhead the grunge movement, which would take as its symbol par excellence the material of flannel, available not in haute couture design houses but in every Salvation Army in America. Furthermore, the new technology behind Soundscan was bringing new rigor to the process of tracking America’s #1 hits, and the payola-ish forces that enabled Milli Vanilli’s very existence would come to feel a thing of the past very quickly.
Christian Hawkey, Joe Diebes, and David Levine
The story of Milli Vanilli has it all: a fast rise and a faster fall, issues of powerful inclusion and exclusion, race (Milli Vanilli were a multi-racial outfit), temptation and exploitation. ... above all it has everything to do with the authenticity of the human voice, which is the kind of thing an opera can make hay with. As a child of grunge myself, I’m not alway so predisposed to let Milli Vanilli off the hook; their prefabbed sound represents the polar opposite of, say, Jesus Lizard. And yet the notion that Milli Vanilli was essentially crucified to make a lavish point about integrity in the music industry seems entirely inarguable.
Such a notion has inspired composer Joe Diebes, librettist Christian Hawkey, and director David Levine to pursue a remarkable operatic work about the Milli Vanilli scandal that has been several years in the making. It’s called “Wow,” and it was performed at BRIC House in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, earlier this year. In the piece, librettist Hawkey takes pains to bring in some notable examples of mass media fakery in the pop culture arena that failed to elicit comparable outrage, including Audrey Hepburn lip-syncing her songs in the movie version of My Fair Lady, the use of a dancer in Flashdance, as well as the Monkees, who were a TV band before they became a real band. Any opera that features the line, “but the ass of the woman in Pretty Woman was not real….” has got to be worth a listen.
In an interview with the New York Times, Diebes said, “Aside from their story being inherently operatic, in terms of the Faustian bargain the duo made with the German pop producer Frank Farian. ... I am interested in the machinery that surrounded and ultimately destroyed them, and what that can tell us about our contemporary digital situation. It’s significant to me that they emerged at the same time as digital culture went mainstream, and MIDI sequencers and drum machines became common.”
As Brooklyn Paper reported earlier this year,
Diebes’ score is a deconstruction of Wagner’s “Der Meistersinger von Nurenberg,” which will be fed to the singers and orchestra live on video monitors, making for a new show each night. Levine’s staging is inspired by the act’s music videos.
“They had an extraordinary amount of charisma and were able to create an act that was totally singular,” said Hawkey. “There was a level of choreography and even costume that was just utterly fantastic. I love shoulder pads, and they knew how to rock them.”
“I remember feeling at the time when the scandal broke that they had been wronged,” said librettist Hawkey, a poet who teaches at Pratt Institute. “That they were probably victims of a larger corporate system that gobbled them up and spit them out.”
Here’s a workshop of the “untitled” piece dating from 2011, in which you can hear some of the key arias:
More after the jump…..