It didnʼt seem like Prague when the astronauts unfurled Old Glory and the pedal steel guitar struck a distinctly American twang. Actually, it was 385,000 kilometers away – and a very good demonstration of the power of contemporary music theater to transport audiences to another time and place.

<i>Apollo</i> © Zdeněk Bierhanzl
Apollo
© Zdeněk Bierhanzl

The piece was Apollo, a compendium of NASA footage from the eponymous program and moon landings of the late 1960s, set to music written by Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois. Created for the 40th anniversary of the first landing, it was dusted off by the British ensemble Icebreaker, joined by steel guitarist BJ Cole to provide a breathtaking finale for this yearʼs Opera Nova festival.

There is not much innovative about Apollo, which is basically a film with live musical accompaniment. But most of the footage was never shown prior to 2009, and includes gaffes like astronauts stumbling and falling in the moon dust, bringing a human element to the derring-do of space exploration. The music is mostly ambient, flavored by electric guitar licks and periodic droning, and manages to capture the majesty, audacity and fragility of being in space all at once. And there are some nice touches of humor, like the “Filmed on Location” note in the closing credits.

Interestingly, conventional formats, or at least traditional approaches to presenting new material, worked best throughout most of the festival. In particular, text-heavy pieces struggled to strike a satisfying balance, and multimedia graftings often felt awkward or forced.

<i>Apollo</i> © Zdeněk Bierhanzl
Apollo
© Zdeněk Bierhanzl

Opening night featured a reprise of Petr Wajsarʼs Tramvestie, which enjoyed a successful premiere just two months earlier at the New Stage. A smart, sharp score of live music and recorded effects re-creates the jolting rhythms of a tram ride while four singers offer witty takes on stereotypical Czech characters. The momentum is irresistible and the integration of voices, music and effects seamless.

A concert presentation of Marek Piačekʼs 66 Sezón (66 Seasons) was equally good, thanks in no small part to outstanding work by members of the Prague State Opera Choir and PKF – Prague Philharmonia. The piece started life as a 2003 documentary film by Peter Kerekes focused on the public swimming pool in the Slovak city Košice, where between 1936 and 2002 bodies glistened, love bloomed and lives were interrupted or destroyed by war and politics. As an opera, it features four singers – a narrator, an elderly woman reliving her memories and two randy young boys.

The music is squarely in the musical theater tradition, incorporating elements of pop, jazz and neoclassical. And in keeping with 66 Sezónʼs origins, the music is strongly visual, almost a narrative in itself. Like sitting poolside, it has a refreshing quality and sizzles when the boys admire the girls (Slovak girls! Czech girls! German girls!) in bathing suits. Soprano Linda Ballová was brilliant as the elderly Nagymama (grandmother), and conductor Marián Lejava led a tight, propulsive performance. The choir often takes the lead vocal role in the piece, and in its evocation of swimmers, sunbathers and soldiers, the State Opera ensemble was sensational.

<i>The Message – Dr Kafka's Last Love</i> © Zdeněk Bierhanzl
The Message – Dr Kafka's Last Love
© Zdeněk Bierhanzl

Tibor Szemzőʼs Message – The Last Love of Dr. Kafka offered a meditation on the last years of Kafkaʼs life, mixing film footage of places he lived and visited with atmospheric music and readings from letters of his lover Dora Diamant and friend Robert Klopstock. The music is moody and jazzy, perfect accompaniment to the bleak urban landscapes, which lose a lot of their impact in being contemporary rather than historical. But the music grinds to a halt for the texts, which after a while feel like dead weight slowing down the piece instead of illuminating it.

Slovakiaʼs Cluster Ensemble served up three Steve Reich pieces with precision but not much flair, sounding almost lethargic in the closing moments of Four Organs. And other than some occasionally interesting lighting effects, an accompanying dance duo did not add much other than a distraction from the music. Rudolf Komorousʼs The Mute Canary, a chamber opera based on the eponymous story by French artist and writer Georges Ribemont-Desaignes, carried over the dada and surrealist elements so well that it was nearly incomprehensible. The score didnʼt give the young Prague Modern ensemble an opportunity to contribute more than background and color. And veteran Anne Grimm had to overcome weak staging to show some superb movement and singing.

<i>The Mute Canary</i> © Hana Smejkalová
The Mute Canary
© Hana Smejkalová

Individual strengths and weaknesses aside, the spirit of boldness and experimentation ran though the week like a cool breeze, a welcome respite from the heat wave roasting the city and an invigorating break from the National Theaterʼs traditional opera repertoire. Doomsayers take note: Opera is not dying, just being reinvented for the modern world.


****1