OPERA NEWS - My Square Lady
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In Review > International

My Square Lady

BERLIN
Komische Oper Berlin
6/25/15

In Review Square Lady hdl 915
Myron, the star of Gob Squad's My Square Lady at the Komische Oper Berlin
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de 

During the third year of intendant Barry Kosky’s reign, the Komische Oper Berlin celebrated several milestones, including its first-ever production in Italian (Gianni Schicchi), superlative performances of Bartok and Schoenberg (Bluebeard’s Castle, Moses und Aron), and virtuosic performances from two actors performing over thirty roles (Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will!). The Komische, which was recently voted Opera Company of the Year at the 2015 International Opera Festival, decided to close the season with another landmark: the first opera to star a robot.  

The occasion was the world premiere of My Square Lady, an “operatic investigation” by the British-German art collective Gob Squad (seen June 25). The title character and Eliza Doolittle stand-in was Myon, a robot the size of an eight-year-old child that was developed by the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Built with a human joint structure and a single eye (a camera) in the center of a compact head, Myon brings to mind creatures from the Pixar film Wall-E. Onstage, the robot appeared with his Henry Higgins, Manfred Hild, a professor of artificial intelligence at the Humboldt, and a team of three researchers who have worked with it over the past two years, training the robot to recall learned behavior rather than simply to carry out pre-programmed tasks. 

In the course of the evening the scientists, joined by KOB singers, chorus members, musicians — even stagehands and interns — endeavored to “teach” Myon about opera and human emotions. It was a mammoth undertaking that managed to preserve a sense of intimacy despite the size — and variety — of musical, theatrical and extra-theatrical forces deployed. At the production’s core was a series of mediated conversations between members of the Gob Squad, the scientists and soloists from the KOB ensemble about the nature of feelings in ordinary life and in the emotionally raw world of opera. In the course of the evening, the humans onstage performed a quirky jukebox mix of arias and pop songs that encapsulated the wide range of emotional states — exuberance, heartbreak, nostalgia, regret, mourning — they wished to convey to Myon. It was in this manner, performing as much to the robot as to the audience in the house, that the musical component of the evening fused with the more theoretical musings about man and machine. Meandering though it was at time — much of the dialogue seemed ad-libbed — it was almost always engaging and clever. In retrospect, however, the evening could easily have ended after the act one finale of Myon conducting the brindisi from Traviata

Under the baton of Arno Waschk, a springy young conductor who also did the arrangements, the KOB orchestra played through several centuries worth of music over three hours, staring with Henry Purcell and ending with Waschk himself, who contributed an original instrumental composition called “Myon’s Dream,” although I honestly can’t remember when or where in the production it appeared. 

House bass Carsen Sabrowski was in good voice for Schubert’s Der Wanderer. The young soprano Mirka Wagner flaunted her attractive voice in the Song to the Moon from Rusalka, while Christiane Oertel, a Kammersängerin and currently the longest-running member of the KOB ensemble sang a haunted and fragmentary version of the card scene from Carmen, while explaining how she regretted never having had the opportunity to sing the role. Oertel joined forces with Wagner and Caren van Oijen, another old hand at the house, to inhabit the Three Ladies from Zauberflöte. The chorus returned after intermission for a powerful rendition of “Denn alles Fleicht, es ist wie Gras,” from Brahm’s Deutsches Requiem, which suffered somewhat in this orchestration. The chorus returned at the very end for an appropriate yet über-schmaltzy rendition of “I Sing the Body Electric,” from the musical Fame, sung by the entire company — Myon included! My favorite musical moment, however, was hearing Manfred Hild, the professor, ham it up with Robbie Wilson’s schlock-pop anthem “Feel” (“Come and hold my hand / I wanna contact the living / Not sure I understand / This role I've been given”), to the enthusiastic roar of the appreciative audience.  

In light of these selections, it seemed a good idea that Gob Squad and the KOB resisted the temptation to include any Lerner and Loewe in their selection. For those classic Broadway tunes, we’ll need to wait until November for a new production of My Fair Lady from the Komische’s former intendant Andreas Homoki.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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