Here’s a phrase you don’t hear too often these days. Read it out loud for full impact: “The News” is pretty good.
This listener was surprised that it was. Presented by ever-wandering Long Beach Opera on Sunday evening (repeated June 25-26) at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, “The News” (not the be confused with Hindemith’s “News of the Day”) is billed as a “Techno-Video-Pop Opera” composed by “the Warhol of modern music,” a fellow who calls himself JacobTV with a straight face, and Dutch no less.
Excuse me, but no thank you.
Turns out, though, that the composer is a clever fellow and smart enough to pull off what he has in mind, a satire on cable and television news, an easy target to be sure, but one that can use plenty of hitting nonetheless.
The opera takes place on the set of a news broadcast (the station is dubbed KLBO here) with two anchors, both female, both good looking in a dolled up anchor kind of way. The anchors initially sit behind a desk, as the production crew mills about, the broadcast about to begin.
What ensues proves not unrecognizable in form. “The News” is a mixture of “The Daily Show” and Steve Reich, of Michael Moore and pop music and absurdist theater. A wide screen stretches about the stage and upon it are screened a series of news segments (we see Trump right off), found objects from the mainstream media.
JacobTV slices and dices the spoken phrases therein, repeats them and turns them into little rhythmic riffs, the tonal inflections becoming melody. A nine piece band at the rear of the stage — including a saxophone choir, trumpet, trombone, percussion, electric guitar and bass — takes up the riffs and generally turns them into a cheerful thrum of pop, jazz and minimalism. The band is ably conducted by Andreas Mitisek, general director of the company and here doubling as a producer of the news broadcast.
Our two anchors (Loire Cotler, who specializes in rappy, rhythmic patter, and Maeve Hoglund, who introduces a soaring lyricism) interact with and echo the video segments, cavorting all the while like a pair of Mick Jaggers, slowly disrobing as the opera proceeds, both eventually doing the news with fake breasts exposed.
The point of it all is not just that the news is bad and that the human race is a tribe of idiots (though that seems clear enough) but that the way the media covers it all is nothing but a gigantic joke. (Strangely, Fox News clips were used sparingly.) Thus the ironic party atmosphere encouraged by the anchors.
What’s more, JacobTV intersperses the jokey real news segments with episodes in a more documentary style, with real people (not talking heads) talking about their plights in, say, Syria and Somalia. These minor-keyed numbers are often quite haunting in mood.
The one flaw in the performance — and this listener considers it a major one — was the sound design. Perhaps this kind of multimedia extravaganza is ultimately unperformable, mixing as it does live music with video sound, amplified instruments with acoustic, and operatic voices singing into microphones. At any rate, one understood perhaps one in ten words sung and the musical textures were muddy, monochromatic and over reverberant.
In the end, “The News” unwinds as a number opera, 32 music videos, like a Handel opera for post-modern times. It would benefit from cuts — most points were made several times — though all of the music is entertaining enough and director Tanya Kane-Perry keeps everything moving along in a lively manner.
You do feel your heart sinking as the opera proceeds, however. “The News,” I’m afraid, is also depressing.
photo: Keith Ian Polakoff