Opera with Louise Brooks inspired character debuts in Chicago, and it's not Lulu

The Invention of Morel, a new 90 minute opera with a Louise Brooks inspired character, has received its world premiere at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, Illinois under the auspices of the city's Chicago Opera Theater. Additional information on the production can be found here.

The Invention of Morel is a music theater adaptation of the 1940 novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares. The score is by Stewart Copeland (the co-founder and drummer for the Police), with stage direction by the English actor-writer Jonathan Moore. Copeland and Moore collaborated on the libretto. The opera was commissioned by the Long Beach Opera and Chicago Opera Theater. (Excerpts from The Invention of Morel were performed as part of the New Opera Showcase, presented by OPERA America and NOVUS NY orchestra on January 18, 2016, at Trinity Wall Street.)

The opera features alluring Valerie Vinzant as Faustine, and Andrew Wilkowske as the Fugitive. Baritone Lee Gregory is the Narrator (the id of the Fugitive), and tenor Nathan Granner is Morel. Kimberly E. Jones plays Dora, Barbara Landis is the Duchess, Scott Brunscheen is Alec/Ombrellieri, and David Govertsen is Stoever.

The full opera debuted in Chicago on February 18th. In it's reviews, the Chicago Sun-Times described the work as "the alternately unnerving nightmare and beautiful fever dream of a man on the run who sees no hope for his future until he conjures a relationship with an enigmatic woman," adding "Invention of Morel deftly balances period charm with a contemporary sense of artificial reality." The Chicago Tribune said it was "a brilliant piece of musical surrealism."

Casares' La invención de Morel is widely considered the first literary work of magical realism, predating the kindred fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others. It features a character named Faustine who was inspired by the author's affection for Louise Brooks. Casares said as much in interviews in later years. Those facts are seemingly not lost on the designers of the opera, who have modeled their Faustine character after Brooks' appearance, especially her signature bob hairstyle.

Though not as well known as it should be, The Invention of Morel has had a unique, lingering resonance throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Casares’ book was made into a French movie called L’invention de Morel (1967), and an Italian movie called L’invenzione di Morel (1974). It is also believed to have inspired the Alain Resnais’ film Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which was adopted for the screen by the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Brooks herself ended up on the cover of a recent edition of Casares’ book, which in turn was given a shout-out on the television series Lost (2004 – 2010).

Notably, this is not the first time a contemporary opera singer has been modeled after Brooks. Witness William Kentridge's recent staging of Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, where the appearance of the Lulu character was meant to evoke the actress. The source material for both operas, of course, bear a relationship to Brooks as well, as Brooks starred as Lulu in a 1929 film adaption of Frank Wedekind’s earlier play, Pandora's Box. [The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra staging of William Kentridge’s production of Lulu was recently released on DVD / Blu-ray on the Nonesuch label.]

The Chicago Tribune noted: “As the Fugitive (forcefully sung and acted by baritone Andrew Wilkowske) falls desperately in love with a mysterious beauty who's one of Morel's guests, the symbolically named Faustine (a character inspired by the 1920s film star Louise Brooks), we see the Narrator (the excellent baritone Lee Gregory) pouring his confusion and fears into a diary. He tries to catch her attention and persuade her to return his longing, but she remains as remote as the rest.”

About the opera, the Chicago Opera Theater stated on their website, "This world premiere opera is based on La invención de Morel, a 1940 novel by the influential Argentine author, Adolfo Bioy Casares. The story for this opera does not live within the classic constructs of time and space, but instead explores powerful driving forces of human emotion: love, desire, and sacrifice. . . .  An escaped fugitive arrives on an isolated, strange island. While exploring his surroundings, he observes a group of tourists and quickly realizes something is not quite right in this paradise. Intrigued yet wary of these eccentric visitors, he begins to fall in love with one—a strikingly beautiful woman. He discovers these visitors are here at the invitation of Morel, a mad scientific genius, for the unveiling of his latest mysterious invention. When his heart pulls him helplessly toward this beautiful woman he must ask himself how much he is willing to sacrifice to be with her."

Chicago Opera Theater's world-premiere production of Stewart Copeland's The Invention of Morel, conducted by Andreas Mitisek, continues through February 26 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago, Illinois. Tickets are $39-$125; more information at 312-704-8414 and www.cot.org.

Thomas Gladysz is an arts and entertainment writer who has been contributing to the Huffington Post since 2010. He is also the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club begun in 1995. Gladysz has written many articles on the actress, and is currently completing a new book and new DVD commentary related to one of the actress’ films.

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