It has been said that both rock and opera are dead. If this is so, then Vox Lumiere’s performance of The Phantom of The Opera, on October 8 at Kingsbury Hall, can be viewed as an attempt to shock both back to life. Conceived by composer Kevin Saunders Hayes and choreographer/director Trance Thompson, Vox Lumiere’s Phantom is an extravagant multimedia production which sets live singers, dancers and musicians against a projected backdrop provided by the Lumiere Brothers’ 1925 cinematic adaption of Gaston Leroux’s novel.
The abyssal layering of the production—a hybrid stage spectacle, based on a pop musical, based on a film, based on a novel, based on an opera—should allow for extensive artistic play. The production’s focus should strategically shift from layer to layer of the text, creating and experimenting with various juxtapositions and resonances. However, rather than an effect of depths to be plumbed or overlapping surfaces impressions upon which to reflect, Vox Lumiere’s Phantom appears, unfortunately, as a markedly self-conflicted, Frankensteinian fabrication. Instead of supporting or commenting upon one another, the various levels of the texts seem to be in direct competition with one another. While aesthetic dissonance and disconnect have enjoyed considerable currency since Bertholt Brecht’s experiments with epic theater, the conflict evinced by Vox’s Phantom felt simplistic, and frankly, unintentional. In place of nuanced explorations of the various ways different mediums capture, sustain and refract our attention, Phantom instead seemed little more than a dance competition, and a rigged one at that, between two contestants: silent cinema and contemporary musical spectacle.
Sitting there at the performance in Kingsbury Hall, I found myself on several occasions bewitched by the powerful magic of the Lumiere Brothers’ film. I was allured by the bold bodily gestures of 19th-century stage acting, and the way that this acting technique was appropriated by early cinema and then mapped onto the human face. I was struck by the way melodramatic facial expressions, when sufficiently pressed, could become highly spiritualized, the most striking example of this being Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film of 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Here, the human visage functions as a broad and complex field of action and experience, a kind of living artist’s canvas or sculptor’s stone. Pressed to even greater extremes, the face can express depths of feeling which exceed the limits of the human, become hideous and genuinely monstrous. This, of course, is precisely what we see in the famous leering grimace of Lon Chaney’s phantom.
Absorbed in this soulful and hypnotic play of surfaces, the kind of sensuous spiritual reverie Friedrich Nietzsche treats in The Birth of Tragedy, the viewer could not help but be first startled and then frustrated when the company of Vox Lumiere repeatedly interrupted the continuity of the Lumiere Brothers’ film with their own brand of song-and-dance routine, which, in terms of both of music and costuming, resembled nothing so much as The Pussycat Guys and Dolls. Whereas the beauty of the Lumiere Brothers’ film lay in the way cinematic technology could conjure startlingly intimate views of private and unselfconscious ecstasies, the theatricality of Vox Lumaire’s production was by contrast uncomfortably self-aware. Rather than contenting themselves with the task—potentially dignified and rewarding—of commenting on a masterful, or at least historically significant cinematic landmark, the cast of Vox seemed determined instead to steal the show, to force the past to serve as little more than an occasion for an extended act of upstaging.
Complicating this difficulty was the fact that the actual songs in Vox’s Phantom, though evocative of fin de siècle belle canto, contained no memorable melodies. Rather than mysterious and evocative to the point of swelling and rending the heart, as, say, the famous Gloria of composer Francis Poulenc (which this production’s music seemed to emulate), the songs in Phantom felt oddly hollow, an effect not lessened by largely unintelligible lyrics. Further, the rock orchestra, though technically competent, felt far too polished, devoid of soul or edge. And this was the case not only with the style of playing, but also with the actually quality of tone. Though the music in Phantom was certainly loud, it never achieved the status of hard or heavy. In large measure this was the result of a tone which came across as entirely processed. Instead of the classic raw “Gibson Les Paul and Marshall stack” sound one expects or demands from rock music, the sound produced by the orchestra in Phantom felt explicitly digital. In place of strings, sticks, skins and speakers activating living air, it seemed more accurate to perceive Phantom’s backing music as a modulated signal, a sign wave tweaked on an oscillator’s screen, a vastly different kind of instrumentation.
This highly-processed feel is something, I must confess, which pervades all of Vox Lumiere’s production of The Phantom of The Opera. If rock opera’s original and most authentic moment was The Who’s Tommy, then Vox Lumiere’s Phantom figures rather as the RockBand® version of rock opera, a game in which the player strives not after genuine innovation or expression so much as perfect identification, the mechanical imitation, on both the technological and bodily levels, of a prepackaged style. All that remains to complete this simulacrum and render it entirely manifest is for the company of Vox to turn 180 degrees, stand with its back to the audience, and interact directly with the projection screen.
To give Vox the benefit of the doubt, it may well be possible that Phantom, in an earlier iteration, did indeed assume the form of something akin to OperaStar. If this is so, it then becomes possible to see the show’s passage from video game to Broadway extravaganza as the product of a key critical insight. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the overall result would have been far more effective, not to say weirdly gratifying, if Vox had had this insight, this moment of shocking self-discovery (the New Opera as Dance Dance Revolution!), and then mustered the audacity to remain true to its own nature, true to the innate capacities of what art historian Rosalind Krauss calls its own “technical support.” What if Vox Lumiere had performed Phantom entirely with its back to the crowd? Not only would this have created a far more canny engagement with our own History Channel culture of media absorption and historical fascination, but further it would have revealed, paradoxically through an act of concealing, one of the most fundamental characteristics of contemporary art and society: that in the Age of Vicarious Experience, the Face, which so captivated high-modernity, has been all but replaced by the Back of The Head.