Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Gods and Monsters

January 29, 2009


REDCAT has a very exciting production on stage this weekend from Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes entitled Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati. The piece premiered in 2000, the brain-child of director Claudio Valdés Kuri and its author Jorge Kuri and has traveled far and wide both in Europe and the Americas, now arriving in Los Angeles four years after the death of its author. It’s a broadly comic and often giddy take on the history of the castrati, the group of young men who typically underwent an orchiectomy in their youth in order to preserve the quality of their high voices, enabling them to appear as heroes and lovers in Baroque operas throughout Europe. The practice continued for several hundred years until the practice fell out of favor at the beginning of the 19th century. A bizarre cast of characters, including the centaur Chiron from Greek mythology, a pair of Siamese twins, a slave, a maestro, a virtuoso castrato, and Napoleon cavort for nearly two hours presenting snippets of historical narrative from this lengthy history, not so much acting out events, but relating them through a series of farcical interactions that include singing, dancing, throwing sand, and horrid costumes like something out of a John Copley-directed operatic nightmare. I don’t want to give too much away, the video clip above may give you more of an idea. The piece is quite funny even if you are not an opera fan, although it probably pushes more than a few buttons if you are and you speak enough Spanish and French to get some of the asides not translated on a screen above the action.

But the reason History is great is not just because it’s very funny. At its very heart, it is also deadly serious. The work has something to say about colonialism and class, as well as the way Western culture is as much about destruction as much as it is about beauty and creation. Just as Western art creates the castrati, a sort of monstrosity not unlike the mythical Chiron, for its own amusement, it just as easily rips them down for its own cultural benefit with the arrival of the age of reason. Napoleon himself arrives near the end of the work, and suddenly the beloved “monsters” of opera become despised and reviled for the same qualities that made them so loved and prized in the first place. In History, Western art is not a laurel of salvation like the one our modern day press has crowned the likes of Gustavo Dudamel with – music as a force that washes clean the masses and soothes the soul. This is an art, like the culture it comes from, which also destroys, creating monsters for ones amusement in a bear-baiting like fashion. There is a modern correlate here as well. While we no longer have the surgically-created castrati of Jean Ambroise Paré, opera still engenders the same desire to view its performers as biological machines, jumping through a predetermined series of exercises that are ascribed somehow to the service of beauty. Take for instance the kind of sniping that occurs when vocalists “under-perform” such as arose this very week around the usual blogs in response to the Villazon/Netrebko performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in New York. Opera, and art for that matter, becomes little more than a sport in a context where flawless vocal technique reigns supreme above all else. History is full of broad fun, but at its core is a poignancy and deeper meaning that are easy to overlook. Kuri's play is a clever trick and a wonderful evening.


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