Thanks to La Monnaie, Belgium is well and truly making its mark on the global opera scene through their world premiere of Frankenstein, a grand production that sees the coming together of numerous greats from around the world in celebration of the novel’s 200-year anniversary. Set in an unspecified future, scientists come across an unspecified frozen creature during an expedition to the North Pole. One of them makes a bold move and brings it back to life. Encouraged by his success, the scientists decide to go a step further, until the Creature regains consciousness. With notions of dystopic monstrosities and unrequited love, Frankenstein is set to be one of this year’s most highly anticipated opera productions in the world, let alone Belgium. Get ready to partake in operatic history.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, is an exquisite Gothic novel and largely considered by many to be a pioneer of the science fiction genre. Obsessed by notions of galvanism and the occult, the premise for the novel was born from a dream Shelley had of a mad scientist successfully creating artificial life, before eventually becoming horrified with his result. Fast-forward to a good two centuries later, La Monnaie’s director Peter de Caluwe teamed up with Àlex Ollé, director and cofounder of the Catalan artistic collective La Fura dels Baus, to again dream up an operatic interpretation of this landmark story. Intended to correspond with the novel’s 200-year anniversary in 2018, the pair tasked the acclaimed American music composer and sound designer Mark Grey with creating Frankenstein, set to world premiere at La Monnaie.
Grey worked in extremely close collaboration with Ollé, as the cofounder of the ambitious project. Those who were able to catch the latter’s productions of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre or George Enescu’s Œdipe at La Monnaie, or even La Fura dels Baus’ grand opening ceremony for the 1992 Summer Olympics at Barcelona will know very well that the Catalan artistic director is obsessed with investigating the fine line between the humane and the monstrous – a perfect match for Frankenstein. Relying on La Fura dels Baus’ trademark use of cutting-edge videos and sound technologies, Ollé and his permanent team – Alfons Flores in charge of the monumental sets, Lluc Castells entrusted with the costumes and Franc Aleu handling the videography – promise an all-immersive and holistic experience. In fact, Ollé’s vision is so innovative and bold that the initial world premiere date in La Monnaie’s 2015-16 season was put on hold, explaining why and how Frankenstein was pushed back by three seasons in order to meet the necessary infrastructural arrangements.
Ollé’s counterpart Mark Grey is equally decorated: the prolific sound designer has already worked with the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams, cementing his positions as one of the contemporary music greats. His musical writing is based on an inventive restructuration of diverse sounds, bringing together the old and romantic with modern industrial noise and electro-acoustic – alluding to the likes of John Adams and Aaron Copland – making for a rambunctiously emotive music of both intense energy and calm meditation. Going a step further, Grey impressed the contemporary music scene with his composer debut at the legendary Carnegie Hall alongside the Kronos Quartet. And finally, here, with Frankenstein, Grey embarks on a brand-new undertaking of composing for an opera.
With such a prolific composer handling the opera’s soundtracks, Frankenstein’s international cast of singers are composed of La Monnaie-favourites. From the young Lebanese-Polish conductor Bassem Akiki and the extraordinary Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu embodying the tragic, androgynous Creature, to the American baritones Scott Hendricks and Andrew Schroeder playing Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton respectively, German soprano Eleonore Marguerre as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, and many more, this star-studded team is sure to bring Grey’s compositions to bursting life.
Taking opera as a contemporary art form which reflects our current society, Frankenstein makes for a gripping example of how philosophical and ethical questions on the advances of biotechnology and modern medicine can be flawlessly integrated into a musical production. Grey and Ollé tasked librettist Júlia Canosa i Serra with converting the novel into a modernised opera production, moving away from the more simplistic Hollywood adaptations. As a key fixture of the science fiction genre, Shelley’s Frankenstein evokes a dystopic retelling of the Greek myth of Prometheus; of artificially creating man from clay. When applied to today’s context, this Augustan story is more than comprehensible when matched against notions of genetic engineering, selective breeding, assisted reproductive technology and social media. Timely, pertinent and more than relevant, La Monnaie’s Frankenstein is not to miss.Running from Friday 8th to Wednesday 20th March.