Vivid Sydney Daily Report #6: Karen O in Stop the Virgens

There’s something particularly intriguing about the sound of a ‘psycho opera’, so it came as little surprise that Karen O’s Stop the Virgens: A Psycho Opera proved worthy enough to warrant a five-show run during Vivid. Jim Poe was there for last night’s Australian debut of Stop the Virgens, while Dan Boud and Prudence Upton shot the show.

Karen O in ‘Stop the Virgens’
Jim Poe

From the word-of-mouth buzz, Stop the Virgens was clearly one of the hot tickets of Vivid. The brainchild of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and K.K. Barrett, visionary production designer for films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, the show debuted in Brooklyn last fall before coming to Sydney Opera House. It’s billed as a “psycho opera” – a musical fantasia featuring outlandish costumes and sets, a hard-edged score and O’s famous banshee pipes. The band/orchestra includes fellow Yeahs Nick Zinner (one of the music directors) and Brian Chase, along with keyboard legend Money Mark.

Note: you can’t say “There’s not a bad seat in the house” about the Opera Theatre; the view from the balcony is awful. You have to lean over the rail to see anything at all. Before the show I look down: Virgens move about the house with trancelike motions, ignoring the patrons as they take their seats. Onstage a Sentinel glares at the front row.

The show kicks in with an ominous whoosh. There’s a gaggle of Virgens, with sparkly white toga-like costumes and platinum wigs. Sentinels in flowing purple robes, resembling the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, flank the stage, which is transformed into a numinous fantasy realm with elemental motifs of trees, snow, water and blood. O is the witchlike Narrator. They interact with ritualistic flair. Symbolic violence is constantly threatened.

The costumes get the attention. O has already joined the ranks of meta-fashion plates like Bjork and M.I.A.; this show ups the ante. The costumes are crazy enough. She flaunts many variations on the fairy-tale diva/goddess/gangster moll and sings into a bejewelled animal’s horn. Other visual touchstones are Maurice Sendak (obviously), Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Rocky Horror.

So what’s the story about? Beats me. The visual scheme and choreography suggest rites of passage, primal emotion and pain, universal forces like death and menstruation – but nothing adds up. Like a music video, it doesn’t really have to be about anything. It dances a bit too close to camp for my taste. There’s only so many ways a chorus of Virgen Acolytes can gesticulate wildly and writhe around onstage before it gets silly. At times the whole thing seems nothing more than an elaborate ode to the joys of fabric: the costumes, the curtains, the swathes and swatches and bundles of many-coloured fabric that are constantly wrapped around the characters and danced with and chucked all over the place.

On its own terms, Stop the Virgens delivers the goods. It’s dynamic, it’s fabulous, it’s a feast for the senses. If you’re into spectacle, noise and fabric, this is your thing. Did I mention the costumes?

But it’s lacking depth, to say the least. As theatre or opera it doesn’t work without narrative; the music kicks ass but keeps getting upstaged. The raucous curtain call at the end gets the crowd pumped, but spoils the otherworldy atmosphere and goes on for way too long. The one real, undeniable thing is Karen O’s explosive voice. The rest seems frivolous and disposable. How did the Yeahs get to the rock-opera stage already? In simpler times they unleashed a transcendent cyclone of sound with just two instruments and that voice. There’s more power and fantasy in that voice alone than in all the costume changes you can dream of.