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Entertainment & Arts

Is it news or entertainment? The fuzziness of modern life gets operatic in JacobTV’s ‘The News’

JacobTV’s ‘The News’ produced by Long Beach Opera
Soprano Maeve Höglund, left, and rhythm vocalist Loire Cotler in the Long Beach Opera production of JacobTV’s “The News” at the Broad Stage.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

“News, news, news, news, news, news, news, news, news, news, news, news,” the operatic Richard Nixon obsessively extols upon landing in Beijing at the opening of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” “has a kind of mystery.”

And so it long has in opera, going back at least to Hindemith’s mischievous 1929 comic opera, “Neues vom Tage” (News of the Day). Adams’ “Nixon” launched a late 20th century trend for  “CNN opera,” works for the lyric stage offering insight into contemporary incidents. 

For the record:
6:00 PM, Jun. 21, 2016 A previous version of this story misspelled the name of soprano Maeve Höglund.

“The News” by the  experimental Dutch composer JacobTV (a.k.a. Jacob ter Veldhuis), given its latest updating Sunday night by Long Beach Opera at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, actually is CNN opera. It takes place on a studio set. The opera’s two singers are anchors at their desk. Behind them is a screen covering the full length of the stage on which is broadcast fighting in Iraq, Hurricane Sandy in New York, a police puppy chase on an Arizona highway and much else, commercials and all. Familiarly enough, “The News” features the presumptive Republican nominee here seemingly attempting to make not just broadcast news, but also opera, great again. 

None of this is exactly opera news, either. We’ve had a number of TV program operas too. John Moran’s 1988 “The Jack Benny Program” was coincidentally created by Ridge Theater in New York, the company responsible for the new Los Angeles Opera production of David Lang’s shockingly timely “anatomy theater” about where the evil in a mass murderer lies. In 2003 “Jerry Springer: The Opera” became a provocative (for its profanity and sacrilege) hit on the West End in London.

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There is nothing particularly provocative about “The News.” JacobTV writes in his program note that one day in 2009 while watching a live TV broadcast in front the ABC studios in Chicago he was taken by what has become the confused reality of the modern media. That has only increased in the subsequent seven years, and the composer has made several versions of “The News” since. Its basic core has been a series of video clips, some silly, some deadly serious (and seriously deadly), to which he gives musical commentary.

The audio on the clips provides rhythm and melody, following a technique that Steve Reich pioneered. A gutsy instrumental band is composed of winds (saxophone-heavy), brass, percussion and electric guitar and bass, a favored Dutch sound. “The News” can be done as an installation piece. A short, live version without singers was given in L.A. by the What’s Next? Ensemble at the funky Cafe Club Fais Do-Do on West Adams. Long Beach Opera goes full bore with rhythm vocalist Loire Cotler and soprano Maeve Höglund as the anchors and a staging by Tanya Kane-Parry.

The inherent danger to all this is in further trivializing and exploiting for entertainment value the news media’s trivialization and exploitation of the news for entertainment value. JacobTV’s music is catchy and for the most part points out obvious absurdities and gimmicks by turning TV into a giant squawk box with a catchy beat.

The composer, of course, does exactly what he accuses the media of doing, namely, turning the news into, as he writes, “infotainment, sometimes drenched with emotion.” When dealing with terrible suffering in the Middle East and Africa, he adds sorrowful blues-tinged melodies for his two vocalists, memorably heightening emotion as it needs to be done, without the saccharine. It’s pretty hard not to make one reporter not look any more asinine that he already does crowing about how he got the Dalai Lama to talk about anger, but JacobTV manages that as well, and he has the benefit of the cogent conducting of Andreas Mitisek.

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Both singers are terrific. Cotler’s secret weapon is her mastery of the south Indian Carnatic style of counting out rhythms. This konnakol has no real reason for entering into the news cycle other than the fact that Cotler does it engagingly and in this opera, anything goes when it come to the news.

What doesn’t fit is all the comic nonsense on stage. Were Cotler and Höglund to remain seated behind their desk, their extravagant musical commentary might produce a subversive operatic effect of genuinely humanizing the phony humanizers of television news. Instead, Kane-Perry asks for stagy stupidity.

Trump says he’ll be a cheerleader for America, and the anchors jump up and down with pom poms. We go to war, and the anchors become fighters shooting off comic book automatic rifles. The pope is on the screen, so they unbutton their blouses and don giant prosthetic breasts.

Cotler and Höglund throw themselves into everything, but with this trifling production the news and, consequently, “The News” has no mystery.

“The News”

Where: Broad Stage, Santa Monica

When: 4 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $29 - $137.25

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Info: (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org

mark.swed@latimes.com


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