Thirty miles west of Cleveland, Oberlin is not Twin Peaks. But the joe’s serviceable, the doughnuts are superb and this sleepy, currently snow-covered college town has just enough alternate-universe feel, with its old-time sweet shops and 1960s prices, that David Lynch might approve of it. It also has the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, which has long spilled major performers and composers onto the American scene.
Thursday night, the conservatory and alternate universe came together as the Lynch-pin for the U.S. premiere of a recent opera based on the filmmaker’s 1997 feature, “Lost Highway.” Olga Neuwirth, a 38-year-old Austrian, is the composer. She fashioned a libretto with the Austrian novelist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize, Elfriede Jelinek. A deep, disturbing film has met its operatic match.
In “Lost Highway,” Lynch, who wrote the film with novelist Barry Gifford, observes a musician’s collapse. A hot jazz saxophonist married to an inaccessible, beautiful brunet suffers icy sex and enters a world of dread. Lynch looks on as that world turns strange yet remains real.
We are in and out of Fred Madison’s mind. He doesn’t know whether he kills Renee or not, and we don’t know either. He is sentenced to death but outwits the executioner by becoming someone else. Fred’s fantasy is Pete, a young mechanic. Renee is now Alice, blond temptress and porn-king Mr. Eddy’s girl (both are played by Patricia Arquette in the film). Sex heats up; so does violence; so does the mystery. A weirdo, played by Robert Blake and straight out of Twin Peaks, stops “Lost Highway” from making sense. Pete murders Mr. Eddy, and his mind dissolves in his escape as he flees at high speed, lost on the highway.
Lynch’s genius is to create startlingly beautiful two-dimensional surfaces full of clues to the ineffable strangeness underneath them. You know something’s there; you just don’t know what it is. Angelo Badalamenti’s score undulates like waves along this secretive surface.
Neuwirth, however, takes the plunge. One of the leading young-generation composers in Europe and one of the most fearless, she finds what is really going on with these people. She adds texture and emotional activity. She is just as weird as Lynch but in a different way.
The opera, which had its premiere in Graz, Austria, in 2003, follows the film closely. Jelinek, who is best known for the novel “The Piano Teacher,” has a talent for getting the greatest amount of debasement from the shortest sentences. She retains Lynch and Gifford’s dialogue but reduces an already laconic text to its essence. Neuwirth then fills the aural space with commotion.
Her musical style has many facets. She has a way with electronics, and the score for “Lost Highway” is full of extraordinary acoustical effects. The orchestra is a percussion-rich chamber ensemble enhanced by solo accordion, keyboard, trombone, clarinet, saxophone and electric guitar.
Live instruments are used straight but also have their sounds manipulated in real time. Prerecorded music can be added to the mix. Sometimes you can tell what is what, and sometimes you can’t. The ear connects but remains unsure.
The score is built of layers and loops. Often, different things happen at once. The musical materials can come from anywhere. Miles and Monteverdi are part of the mix. But the larger musical gestures are more intellectually complex, with the wealth of European new-music techniques at Neuwirth’s disposal. The result is a rich mix and an invitation to many listenings.
In the first part of the opera, the singers mostly speak their lines with little inflection. They are, like the characters in the film, distant and abstract. The orchestra, though, expresses confusion, and the confusion ultimately takes over.
Music eventually infects the characters, as speech becomes inflected and turns into elaborate song. Electronics make crazy-mad Mr. Eddy scarier than ever. By the end, electronics dissolve everything. Fred emerges from a drone and returns to it; sanity and madness have the same source.
As in the film, Renee/Alice is a single role. For Lynch, she is the unknowable, seriously intimidating feminine ideal, too beautiful to approach, let alone own. She is all body, all physical substance. Fred, the musician, is all mind (and sound), but without substance, he cannot withstand physical reality.
Neuwirth turns Fred into a trumpet player (her instrument) and writes fabulously for brass. But her main invention is to, so to speak, flesh out Renee/Alice, to give her all the qualities of a true operatic femme fatale. She becomes not just an object of lust but a personification of lust. In the film, her beauty makes her desirable and elusive. In the opera, she has a soul, and that becomes the more arresting source of her sexual power.
Perhaps a woman should stage “Lost Highway.” That was not the case at Oberlin, but the performance in Finney Chapel was a remarkable achievement for undergraduates. Jonathon Field’s production, presented in front of a scrim and using video projections, never strayed far from the film or its ideas and sometimes seemed a slave to them. That reportedly was the case with the original production in Graz as well.
The performers -- Alice Teyssier (Renee/Alice), Barry Bryan (Fred), Michael Weyandt (Pete), Raphael Sacks (Mr. Eddy), Chad Grossman (Mystery Man) -- made the extra effort but were apparently asked to tone down their natural sex appeal. The conductor, Timothy Weiss, also toned down a bit of the electronics, but he conducted a musically solid performance.
“Lost Highway” needs more than a college can give it, but what could be scarier to American opera companies than exposing their audiences to Hollywood’s darkest side, further darkened and deepened by a provocative young Austrian woman? Oberlin deserves credit not only for taking on this daunting task but also for making sure America notices. The production travels to Columbia University’s Miller Theater in New York later this month.
A liberated “Lost Highway” yet awaits. Maybe that will be the case when the English National Opera gives its London premiere next season.