The Passion of New Eve, by Angela Carter, is a postmodern Science-fiction picaresque novel, set in a dystopian future full of absurd and nightmarish elements. It forms the basis of the libretto of the new opera Tristessa, produced by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. The main theme is a reflection on sex and gender, a satirical critique of gender myth-making which precedes and predicts the theory of gender performativity.

<i>Tristessa</i> © Sören Vilks
Tristessa
© Sören Vilks

The main character is Evelyn, a man with a feminine name, who is obsessed with a silent movie diva called Tristessa, who is the perfect embodiment of femininity. Evelyn is stranded in a dystopian New York City, where he mistreats his girlfriend Leilah, using her only for sex, which results in her becoming pregnant. He forces her into an abortion and abandons her, bleeding and terrified, when the procedure goes wrong. He is then kidnapped by a matriarchal cult in the city of Beulah, where the ur-matriarch, called simply “Mother”, forces a “psycho-surgery” on him to turn him into a woman, complete with functioning sexual and reproductive organs. He thus wakes up as “Eve” a beautiful, idealised version of a woman. His body is now female, but he has not yet learned how to be a woman.

The Beulah cult wants to impregnate her with his own sperm (collected before the surgery), but Eve manages to escape. She ends up being kidnapped by a patriarchal sect, where the ur-patriarch Zero (a Charlie Manson kind of character) lives in the desert with seven wives, whom he abuses and humiliates constantly. Zero is also obsessed with Tristessa: he hates her, believing that she is a witch who is responsible for his sterility. Eve is herself raped and forced to join Zero’s harem; the whole family then goes in search of Tristessa, who is living in a secluded palace in the desert. When they find her, they discover that she has a male body. Zero and his wives force Eve and Tristessa to have sex; Tristessa is then killed by Zero, and Eve leaves on a boat, sailing into the sunset, pregnant.

Johanna Rudström (Young Tristessa) and Joel Annmo (Evelyn) © Sören Vilks
Johanna Rudström (Young Tristessa) and Joel Annmo (Evelyn)
© Sören Vilks

Boring, this opera was not. The big questions it poses are profoundly current: what does it mean to be a man or a woman? Is gender (or even sex) only a performance? The famous words by Simone de Beauvoir were often projected on stage: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.

The visual experience was powerful; the sets by Ann-Sofi Sidén followed quite closely Carter’s literary description. The New York City of the future was full of neon lights and sado-masochistic characters; Beulah was quite literally the depiction of a woman’s womb, while Zero’s world in the Arizona desert looked like stereotypical “white trash”. The representation of Mother as a five-breasted giant will be hard to forget (costumes also by Sidén). Sidén did not shy away from strong, gruesome images: if Eve’s rape was treated with a light hand, the sex reassignment surgery on the contrary was shown in a video right in our faces. The video was a computer simulation in black and white, but still, you could feel the men silently gasping in the audience. 

Joel Annmo (Tristessa) and John Erik Eleby (Zero) © Sören Vilks
Joel Annmo (Tristessa) and John Erik Eleby (Zero)
© Sören Vilks

The musical production was quite interesting; the score by Jonas S. Bohlin underlined the dramatic action with intensity, without melodic lines, in an atonal framework. The Royal Swedish Choir was used to great effect in many scenes; they sang with precision and emotion, and their performance was one of the highlights of the evening. To my surprise, I felt comfortable with Bohlin’s music. It is hard for a Baroque aficionado like me to describe his style; but what it called to mind at times was Ravel's operas.

The sex and gender change was also expressed by the main singers: in the first act, Joel Annmo was Evelyn and Johanna Rudström was Tristessa, the embodiment of Evelyn’s imagination. In the second act, after the surgery, Rudström was Eve, while Annmo performed the role of old Tristessa. Both Annmo and Rudström were completely committed to their roles, and their performances were remarkable. Both Mother and Zero were sung by the same singer: bass John Erik Eleby, who managed to convince both as the matriarch and the patriarch. Kerstin Avemo, as Leilah, enjoyed a great success with her very high, bright soprano. Unfortunately, the performance suffered from the same fault as the book from which it originated: the characters were one-dimensional, archetypes rather than people. Thus, despite the commitment and successful performance of the singers, it was hard to identify with them and feel any emotional connection to the story.