Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Abominable Showman, October 9, 2011

To be or not to be
Rufus Wainwright, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Luc Plamondon’s Starmania and the bastardization of opera by “adapted” rock musicals
by Richard Burnett

The very day al-Qaeda terrorists flew two jetliners into NYC’s World Trade Center on 9/11, Luc Plamondon was in Paris watching a one-night-only revival of his famous rock musical Starmania, in which terrorists bomb the 121st floor of the fictional Golden Tower skyscraper in Las Vegas. 
“The cast was terrified,” Plamondon told me a couple of years ago. “And the audience was dead silent at the end of the performance. It was amazing that Starmania had predicted 9/11. What I wrote [in Starmania] had become reality.”
Starmania, of course, is the great 1978 rock opera that lyricist Plamondon co-wrote with famed French songwriter Michel Berger. Or at least it used to be great. 
Starmania Opera stank so freakin’ bad I walked out of  Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at the intermission. 

I just didn’t realize how incredibly dated and boring Starmania had become until I saw Starmania Opera, L’Opéra de Montréal’s all-opera 2009 adaptation to mark Starmania’s 30th anniversary.
What audiences got for this much-ballyhooed production was a Quebecois circle-jerk starring Marc Hervieux and Marie Josee-Lord (both usually big-hearted and generous performers) posing like wannabe rock stars – and sounding all the worse for it. 
Starmania Opera stank so freakin’ bad I walked out of  Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at the intermission. 
I mean, how could any true opera company dare think an opera dilettante like Luc Plamondon could possibly share a stage with such composers as RossiniBelliniDonizettiVerdi and Puccini?
But in this day and age, when companies like the Vancouver Opera are restaging Broadway musicals like West Side Story – “A full-scale Broadway show with Jerome Robbins's original high-energy choreography, a 30-piece live orchestra and a cast of triple-threat singer-dancer-actors who will knock your socks off!” VO’s website exalts – then I guess the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
Clearly it doesn’t matter what an opera company throws up (pun intended) on their stage as long as it sells tickets. Lots of tickets.
But am I merely an out-of-touch purist?

Promo-doc for Wainwright's Prima Donna

When Montreal native Rufus Wainwirght – whom Elton John calls the greatest living songwriter on the planet and who actually wrote a pretty good opera (called Prima Donna) that only makes Starmania Opera look like the piece of crap it is –  performed with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal at the OSM’s brand-new La Maison symphonique in Montreal on  October 5,  Globe and Mail critic Alan Conter quite accurately wrote, “Symphony concerts with pop stars can be dicey territory for reviewers simply because you can’t apply the same criteria to the performance as you would for a standard classical evening. This must drive cultural purists crazy. Those who hold fast to outmoded silos forget that culture is interesting precisely because it mutates, that’s the richness of cross-pollination. So if you don’t like transgression in art, you may as well stop reading now.”

I did not stop reading. 
Instead of staging Plamondon’s Starmania Opera, what L’Opéra de Montréal should have done instead (and should still do) was stage Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna.

But had Starmania Opera simply been advertised as a symphonic reinterpretation – and not as a bonafide opera – I would have gladly given Plamondon his due, despite the fact  that Starmania has aged terribly.

Instead of staging Plamondon’s Starmania Opera, what L’Opéra de Montréal should have done instead (and should still do) was stage Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna.
But when it comes to the French Montreal ticket-buying public, Luc Plamondon is Francophone – a real Quebecois – and Rufus isn’t.
When I asked Rufus about it last year, he was just happy that his late mom Kate McGarrigle was able to attend the premiere of Prima Donna (budgeted at £2-million) at the Manchester International Festival in July 2009. 
The reviews then were, admittedly, mixed at best. 
Warwick Thompson of Bloomberg wrote, “There were tears of joy in Rufus Wainwright’s eyes when he took his bow after the world premiere of his opera… There were some in mine too, though the joy sprang more from relief that it was over.”
But Wainwright soldiered on and critics are warming to Prima Donna. The opera’s run in April 2010 at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London got warmer reviews, and Prima Donna had its North American debut (under the direction of renowned theatre and opera director Tim Albery) at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre during Hogtown’s Luminato Festival in June 2010. 
“I was anti-Toronto for years!” tried-and-true Montrealer Rufus laughed. “I flew that banner! Down with Toronto! But now I’ve completely shut up.”
“Well, you kind of have to, eh?” I said as we both laughed.
So now Rufus will headline the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming annual fundraising bash Operanation 8: A Muse Ball at the COC’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on October 21.
“I’m happy Toronto wanted my opera. Now what about [L’Opéra de] Montréal?” Rufus asked me rhetorically. “Come on, baby! Come on!”

Rufus Wainwright headlines the Canadian Opera Company’s annual fundraising bash Operanation 8: A Muse Ball at the COC’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts  in Toronto on October 21.
The Vancouver Opera opens its 2011-2012 season with the full-scale Broadway show West Side Story with a 30-piece live orchestra at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, October 22-29.


  1. I saw the original starmania - and I mean the very first production - and was bowled over by it. I went back to see the tarted up B'way version imported from France and it was one of three shows in my life I have actually boo-ed. I cannot imagine an opera version - nor why it exists! It would be like adding a chorus of 50 to Fantastiks. Just silliness.

  2. Sorry, but I dont get how a play about a bombing of a tower in Las Vegas is a prediction of planes hitting the Twin Towers... Kinda not the same thing freaky as it seems.. That would be like saying that a Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis predicted the same events. Not a bad media story if youre scratching for a hook though.


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