A Dutch composer dissects American media in “The News” opera

Netherlands composer JacobTV’s (aka Jacob Ter Veldhuis) multi-media tour de force The News takes audiences on a madcap odyssey to the netherworld of news reportage with one of the most wildly inventive productions this reviewer has experienced in any medium for years. Combining a big screen filled with stunning imagery, the nine-piece LBO Orchestra, Austrian-born conductor Andreas Mitisek and two live anchorwomen, Long Beach Opera’s interdisciplinary The News jet propels opera into the 21st century – if not into the realm of an entirely new art form altogether.

The News‘ theme is an often jarring exploration of news media, exquisitely expressed by the voices and antics of the attractive anchors, soprano Maeve Höglund and rhythm vocalist Loire Cutler. Like much of the televised reportage we are subjected to and often behold spellbound on our television sets, The News has a disturbing dichotomy. There is the trivialization and pandering that cable and network news is rife with, including injections of inappropriate sexuality, especially by women purportedly doing weather and traffic reports.

For example, last May – reportedly in response to real-time emailed complaints – meteorologist Liberté Chan was given a sweater to cover up what has been described as a skimpy cocktail outfit while she delivered a live weather report on KTLA-5. FOX “News'” often blonde talking heads are another case in point of sex appeal trumping knowledge of current events.

The epitome of this trend of looks over substance is the pretty but preternaturally ignorant Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s former press secretary who summed up the Bush regime’s grasp of world affairs when, at a news conference, she showed complete ignorance as to what the Cuban Missile Crisis was. In 2007, Wonkette called this blonde airhead “Dumber Than Everyone Else In History.” What’s this babbler’s “punishment” for being so staggeringly ill-informed? Why, promotion to a perch as a FOX “News” pundit, where she can regularly spew her know-nothing thoughtless thoughts, but of course!

The News spoofs this lunacy with biting satire, particularly in a racy sequence where the anchorwomen, sporting stunt bared bosoms, race about the Broad Stage auditorium, cavorting with the audience. But as the opera observes, this widespread trend of sexualization and dumbing down of what purports to be reportage is extremely dangerous. For example, consider this anecdotal incident:

Around May 12, I watched hours of TV reportage on the so-called 24 hour cable news networks. What passed for journalism was mostly a parade of the brewing transgender-engendered bathroom brouhaha and heaps of Trump trivia. At the same time, Brazilian head of state Dilma Rousseff was suspended from the presidency as part of an impeachment process. Not only is Brazil the largest nation south of the proverbial border, but this summer’s Olympic games are scheduled to be held there, amidst reports that from viruses to incomplete facilities, Rio may not really be ready to host the world’s sports competitions.

Meanwhile, the cable networks that subject us to such benighted coverage, besiege viewers – who pay for their disinformation in an attempt to find out what the hell is happening in their world – who are also forced to consume unwanted, unsolicited commercials that, again, they are compelled to pay for. Come the revolution, I want to personally guillotine the brainstorms who came up with this demented business model.

Meanwhile, back at the review:

The News goes on to show the depth of human misery that televised reportage in particular can expose, bringing home collages of the suffering of people, from Somalia to Syria to Hurricane Sandy and beyond, with disturbing imagery appearing on the huge screen hanging above the orchestra. This complicated opera is so complex and hard to fully grasp, that I wasn’t exactly sure what Ter Veldhuis was trying to say. Although footage of disasters, from Fukushima to Athens riots and so on, is indeed often exploited on TV, one of the worthy functions of journalism is to reveal the human condition and what is actually going on around the world. Is the composer contrapuntally comparing the tube’s degrading trivialization to what the media’s mission is supposed to be? Is this the counterpoint JacobTV is aiming for?

Your guess is as good as mine. Be that as it may, the music and singing are superb – alternately moving, moody, amusing. Cotler’s scatting is flawless. The entire show, perfectly directed by Tanya Kane-Parry, is a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears and (open) mind. According to the playbill, The News, which premiered in 2011, “is constantly updated.” Indeed, the current edition depicts a character who seems tailor-made for operatic excess: The Donald, he who exalts himself. (And also tailor-made for cable news: On June 20, the day the prez-ilduce candidate’s campaign manager was fired, CNN bestowed upon flunky Corey Lewandowski more airtime in one extended, commercial-free (!) interview than the cable network gave Sen. Bernie Sanders during his entire race. Just like CNN let Elián González’s crazy Cuban exile distant relatives in Florida rant and rave on and on, on live TV during that despicable episode in the 1990s – likewise, more airtime than CNN ever gave Fidel Castro.

The News is the best music musing on news media since the Beatles’ 1967 “A Day in the Life” on the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album and the most incisive, cutting-edge critique in a fictional mode of what passes for TV journalism since 1976’s and 1987’s by now woefully outdated Network and Broadcast News. If media commentators Jeff Cohen, co-founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and the late Danny “The News Dissector” Schechter composed opera, this may very well have been the show they’d create.

In the Philip Glass and John Adams mode, this one-act avant-garde opera isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially Puccini purists and Tchaikovsky traditionalists. But for those with a penchant for the aesthetically adventurous, boundary-expanding and philosophically thought-provoking, this reviewer has breaking news for you: For must-see TV and opera, turn on and tune in to JacobTV’s The News.

Long Beach Opera presents The News on Saturday, June 25 at 4 pm and Sunday, June 26 at 2:30 pm at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Pre-opera talks with JacobTV and LBO Artistic & General Director Andreas Mitisek take place an hour before each performance. For more info: (562) 432-5934; www.longbeachopera.org/index.php.

Photo: Long Beach Opera, by Keith Ian Polakoff.

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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