News from the Newts
Do a heavy-metal aria, a mini pop-musical with video advertisements, canned laughter, and other way-past post-war techniques “belong” in an opera? These techniques are incorporated into the State Opera’s production, making War with the Newts (Válka s Mloky) a presentation worthy of your serious consideration.
The two-act opera by Vladimír Franz (also informally known as “the tattoo man” for his blue-figured body; and formally as a professor/composer/painter, and candidate in the recent presidential elections) takes the end of the Karel Čapek novel as its starting point. Available in English as well as Czech, Čapek’s 1936 book is also worth considering. It’s not only an example of fine Czech fiction, but it provides a great back-story for this modern opera.
The novel explains how sea captain J van Toch discovered that a few very large mutant newts (a kind of salamander) in the South Seas could be trained to harvest pearls in deep waters. Eventually, due to their overwhelming success, expertise at underwater construction, and lack of population control, the now-millions of hearty newts demand that land-loving humans relinquish all their land to the slimy creatures, for conversion to shallow harbors and sea beds.
Mr Franz, who has composed over 150 serious pieces of music in various forms, wrote the opera in 2005, but the project was shelved. Its resurrection now makes for a timely topic. It includes such current events as a killer tsunami and destruction of an offshore Louisiana oil rig. The addition of the modern entertainment distractions give us an even more personal mirror to look into.
Most of the human opera chorus is costumed in amply overstuffed, bright, clashy beach clothing. A mother appears, mobile phone glued to her ear, toting along her chubby young son who naively sports a Newt Paradise Theme Park souvenir t-shirt. It’s Bobby’s appearance at the end of the story, his long black newt tail protruding from under this t-shirt, which helps dramatize the chilling conclusion.
The costumes of the newts are less imaginative (well, what can you expect from an all-black salamander?), but one of the most beautiful moments comes when the shadowy newt opera chorus fills the stage to sing the moving Water, Soul, Wasteland (Voda, Duše, Pustá Plán).
The libretto is by Rostislav Křivánek, performed in Czech with surtitles in Czech and excellent English. The program booklet is well worth its 60 kč price, containing the libretto (in Czech only), and photos, plot synopsis, biographies, in-depth interview, and background in both Czech and English.
The next performances of War with the Newts are scheduled for Jan 29, Feb 24, and Mar 3. — oo
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: Hana Smejkalová