Courtney Love’s rock opera duet with Todd Almond packed a small black box at the Here Art Center. The pair could have sold out the room at $250 a seat, but true to Here’s mission to keep performance art affordable, the tickets were a mean $25. It was a stunning opportunity to sit just a few feet away from a rock legend and watch her navigate a blend of rock opera, theater, and light art.
The show opens with Almond, who wrote the opera that he performs with Love, listening to beats on his laptop. His character, a former club kid in his late 30s, KCCB, soon notices a strange image emanating from his television. It’s his long-lost teenage love, Athena, played by Love. What follows for the next hour is a series of flashbacks revealing a romance that ended too soon.
The first major rock opera was the Who’s Tommy in 1969, and its formula was to insert spoken dialogue between rock numbers to drive the plot forward. By turning singers into dramatic personas that tell and sing their stories on a stage, rock songs can achieve resonances that traditional concerts can’t offer. Theatrical devices like plot, set, costumes, and blocking all do their part to pollinate the songs’ contents and punctuate their lyrics. Despite Tommy‘s success, however, the rock opera has not often been revisited as a form. The Prototype Festival, which celebrates hybridizations of music and theater far beyond the conventional tropes of Broadway, has seized the opportunity to tackle this genre.
Few rockers can claim a more operatic presence than Courtney Love. To excel at a rock opera, one must be able to emotionally respond to the ebbs and flows of the story line and its lyrics, and Love is a natural. Her face, gait, and cadence dramatically shifted from one moment to the next. Her body language was reactive to every little movement of her companion, which established a charged chemistry between the characters. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood couldn’t resist taking a jab at her facial plastic surgery, but I don’t think it interfered. Her visage drew the audience into the songs’ ups and downs. In art, as in life, Love knows how to get you to ride the roller coaster with her.
Love’s short-sleeved shirt allowed us to see a tattoo on her arm, which reads, “Let it Bleed.” It’s the title of a lesser-known Rolling Stones song. “Let it bleed” aptly describes her ability to pack so much emotion into lyrics that on the surface don’t seem to have much poetic potential. “Baby, make me your constellation” may sound trite, but the way that Love drew out the words with guttural gravitas was remarkable. The line “All I wanted in this lifetime was to see a movie with you” was equally transformed by her raspy, almost bitter, cadence.
Light was the X-factor in this show. Vita Tzykun, Clark Parkan, and DM Wood were all involved in creating a visual environment of small flickering lights that changed colors and imbued the performance with an otherworldly, retro-sci-fi atmosphere. It made it hard for viewers to forget that we were in a dream world of flashbacks and remembrances of things past as the songs relived the couple’s first kiss, a significant date, and the eventual trauma that killed the starlet and turned her into a distant memory.
In her diaries, published in 2006, Love wrote, “Some
people women treat their celebrity with a solemnity best saved for funerals … I can’t take it too seriously no matter how hard I try. Because it doesn’t have much to do with my art.” She certainly didn’t do this show for the money. Watching her on the stage, it struck me how many major pop and rock stars don’t take chances like this. They call themselves artists but seldom jump into risky, small spaces. Quirky and dreamy, this rock opera allowed all of Love’s wild, cathartic, grungy intensity to shine. With some luck, this marquee moment from the Prototype Festival, now in its third year, can become a model for future projects in which music’s big names step into the niche spaces of more grassroots creativity.