“Kurt Cobain was a walking paradox”: In opera on the star’s final days

TThe stage is dimly lit. A figure appears through the darkness, mumbling incomprehensibly. From afar, the character vaguely resembles Kurt Cobain—ragged clothes, dyed dirty-blonde hair—a resemblance that increases when they climb a flight of stairs into the stage performance of a battered apartment and don what looks remarkably like a pair of women’s white-framed sunglasses , which is so closely associated with the late Nirvana frontman that it’s now colloquially known as “Kurt’s sunglasses.” A man enters the stage on the right, noisily drags a leaf rake behind him and begins to sing in a powerful bass voice. Not a development that resonates well with the character who looks like Cobain hiding in a kitchen cupboard.

This is a rehearsal for Last Days, the Royal Opera House production based on Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film about a disaffected rock star named Blake: It was quite obviously a dark fantasy based on the ‘missing’ five days between Cobain’s escapes out of a Los Angeles rehab facility and killed himself in an annex of his Seattle home, a time when his wife, Courtney Love, was reduced to hiring a private investigator to find out where he was.

It’s an intriguing idea. On the one hand, if you want to stage a production that might go beyond the usual audience fascinated by a modern opera (and it’s worth noting that Last Days includes an aria written by the acclaimed “alternative pop” singer songwriter Caroline Polachek , formerly of indie band Chairlift), then Cobain seems the ideal subject: he’s both a doomed, flawed tragic hero and clearly the most iconic figure to emerge from rock music in the last 30 years Has.

“He carried so many contradictions within him” … Cobain in 1994. Photo: Fabio Diena/Alamy

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a film to adapt as a theatrical production, Last Days seems like a deeply unlikely choice. It doesn’t really have a linear plot (“a literal ‘I know what happened to Kurt Cobain in his last days,’ we’re not going to do that,” says co-director Anna Morrissey), and the dialogue is improvised and fairly haphazard. When the opera’s authors, composer Oliver Leith and librettist, art director and co-director Matt Copson, contacted Gus Van Sant to ask his permission for the adaptation, they also asked him to provide them with a copy of the film’s screenplay to send. “He sent back a Word document that was only one page long,” says Copson. “It’s like four red words: sofa, insurance document, something else. But it was nice because he also just said, ‘Do your own thing.’”

It’s advice the team behind Opera clearly took to heart: Surely no one would call Last Days a willful lunge for mainstream appeal on the lowest common denominator. Thanks to gender-blind casting, Blake is played by a female actress – Agathe Rousselle, best known for starring in Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning horror film Titane. The little dialogue the character had in the film is gone: Blake doesn’t sing or speak, only communicating in the kind of murmurs I heard in rehearsal, although Copson points out, “Those murmurs are surtitled and give us throughout clues to things. ”

The storyline was also liberated to incorporate what Copson calls “literal magical realism.” And the character of Blake’s manager – portrayed in Gus Van Sant’s film by Kim Gordon, former Sonic Youth bassist and a friend of Cobain’s – is played by a Montana-based cattle auctioneer who sings in the industry’s famously monotonous, high-speed chant. “He was 17 years old and he didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was, which was very funny,” says Leith, who recorded him for the opera. “He said, ‘It’s not a bad opera thing, is it?’ I said, ‘Well, we don’t know yet.’”

Neither Copson, best known as a visual artist, nor Leith, a classical and electronic composer whose works have been released on Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label, have ever worked on an opera before: they began writing Last during the pandemic Days, though she dismisses the idea that lockdown might have harmonized with the film’s theme of isolation. As Copson points out, Blake wants to be actively alone in the film, but is constantly interrupted by everyone from doorstep sellers to his record company.

“We just want to make people feel” … from left, directors Anna Morrissey and Matt Copson, and composer Oliver Leith. Photo: ©Camilla Greenwell

Instead, Oliver says he was drawn to Van Sant’s film in part for its sound design, in which even the most mundane sounds — the rustling of leaves, the creaking of a chair — are “boosted” to the same volume as the actors’. Voices. It aligns with his own interest in “raising everyday stakes, framing boring things as, I don’t know, sublime”. His 2018 play good day good day bad day bad day dealt with everyday routines; Honey Siren, for which he received the 2020 Ivor Novello Award, was based on the ubiquitous urban sound of a siren whizzing by.

“Rather than just amplifying it like the film does, here it’s tuned and used,” he says. “The birds do sing songs, wolves howl, but they sing in unison. And cereal bowls are a big topic. When someone pours cereal, it’s unnaturally loud and musical. It’s like zooming in on a movie. You suddenly think, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m looking at, that’s what I’m concentrating on.’”

For Copson, the film’s combination of “Banality and Magic” and the character of Cobain himself, its continued relevance 28 years after his death, was the draw. “I think what makes it interesting, and especially what makes it interesting in 2022 – which is even very different from when the film was made – is the relevance and pervasiveness of this archetype, which, to me at least, has something to say shines about the current state we are all in. They talk to every young person – everyone is exposed to a degree they weren’t before and there are always privacy issues. The basic idea “Am I an individual or a member of society? Am I free to express myself or not? What does it even mean to express yourself? What is freedom?’

“I think the reason this archetype, this Kurt character, remains relevant is because he demonstrated this paradox so strongly. He carried so many contradictions within himself. His suicide note says, “I love people too much,” then it says, “I hate people.” He’s like a walking paradox, and I think these are really important and beautiful characters to deal with because it’s is an extreme of what I personally feel all the time.”

For all its obvious strangeness, mumbled dialogue, and lack of plot, all three are keen on Last Days reaching a wider audience in a world where opera is viewed as a forbidden art form. “Productions alienate,” says Oliver. “Most of the time, new operas are just about themes, and that’s the most boring thing – that’s the climate change opera, that’s whatever. It’s too easy.”

“I think it should resonate,” says Morrissey of Last Days. “You should feel something. You should really feel moved. I don’t think we want consensus and agreement en masse, but individual understanding or resonance with oneself.”

“I think we’re united on one front,” Copson says. “We all say, ‘We just want people to feel, and then little by little they will find it accessible as a form.’ And that doesn’t mean dumbing it down.”

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