Inside Kurt Cobain’s last days opera

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Blind casting … Agathe Rousselle in Last Days at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: © Camilla Greenwell 2022


It contains a thinly developed narrative, garbled speech, a recurring motif of cereal bowls, and a fast-talking cattle auctioneer who portrays his manager. We meet the group behind the risk-taking new production at the Royal Opera House.


It’s dark on the stage. A man may be seen emerging from the shadows and mumbling something unclear. When the figure enters the stage’s recreation of a battered apartment, they don what appears to be a pair of the white-framed women’s sunglasses so closely associated with the late Nirvana frontman that they have come to be known as “Kurt shades,” which are noticeable from a distance because of their ragged clothing and dyed dirty-blond hair. A guy walks on stage right and begins singing in an intense bass voice while obtrusively dragging a leaf rake behind him. The man who resembles Kurt Cobain and is hiding in a kitchen cabinet does not like this development.


It was fairly obviously a grim fantasy based on the “missing” five days between Cobain evading capture from a rehab facility in Los Angeles and killing himself in an outbuilding of his Seattle home, a period during which his wife, Courtney Love, was forced to hire a private investigator to try to find out where he was. This is a rehearsal for Last Days, the Royal Opera House production based on Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film about a disaffected rock star named Blake


We asked Gus Van Sant to give us a copy of his film’s script. He sent back a one page document with four red words on it


It’s an intriguing idea. On the one hand, if you were looking to stage a production that might have an appeal beyond the usual audience intrigued by a modern opera (and it’s worth noting that Last Days features an aria sung by acclaimed “alternative pop” singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek, formerly of indie band Chairlift) then Cobain would seem like ideal subject matter: he is both a doomed, flawed tragic hero and unequivocally the most iconic figure that rock music has produced in the last 30 years.


‘He held so many contradictions within himself’… Cobain in 1994. Photograph: Fabio Diena/Alamy


On the other hand, Last Days looks like a very improbable option if you were seeking for a movie to adapt as a theatrical performance. Having a literal “I know what happened to Kurt Cobain in his last days,” as co-director Anna Morrissey puts it, is something we’re not going to do, and what little discussion there is is quite tepid. Gus Van Sant was approached by the opera’s creators, composer Oliver Leith, librettist, art director, and co-director Matt Copson, to request his approval for the adaptation as well as a copy of the screenplay for the movie. According to Copson, “He sent back a Word document that was one page.” “Sofa, insurance papers, something else. It’s like four red words. However, it was great because he just replied, “Do what you want.


The opera’s creators obviously took this counsel to heart since nobody will ever accuse Last Days of being a conscious attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Agathe Rousselle, well known as the protagonist in Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or–winning horror film Titane, plays Blake here owing to gender-blind casting. Any speaking the character may have had in the movie has been eliminated; instead, Blake communicates only via the type of mumbling I overheard during the rehearsal, but Copson notes that “those mumbles are subtitled and they give us hints of things throughout.”


Additionally, the storyline has been altered to incorporate what Copson refers to as “literal magic realism.” The role of Blake’s manager, performed in Gus Van Sant’s movie by Kim Gordon, a friend of Kurt Cobain’s and the former bassist for Sonic Youth, is voiced by a cattle auctioneer from Montana who chants in the trademark hyperactive monotone of his line of work. Leith, who recorded him for the opera, recalls, “He was 17 years old and he didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was, which was very funny.” “This isn’t an evil opera thing, is it?” he said. Well, we don’t know yet, I said.


They started writing Last Days during the pandemic, though they dismiss the idea that lockdown might have complemented the theme of isolation in the movie. Neither Copson, who is best known as a visual artist, nor Leith, a classical and electronic composer whose work has been released by Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label, had ever worked on an opera before. Copson notes that although Blake deliberately seeks solitude throughout the movie, he is often disturbed by everyone from door-to-door salespeople to his record label.


‘We just want people to feel’ … from left, directors Anna Morrissey and Matt Copson and composer Oliver Leith. Photograph: ©Camilla Greenwell


Instead, Oliver claims that one of the reasons he was attracted to Van Sant’s movie was its sound design, which “raised up” even the most commonplace sounds, like a chair creaking and leaves rustling, to the same loudness as the characters’ voices. It is consistent with his own desire to “raise everyday stakes, frame mundane things as, I don’t know, sublime.” His 2018 work, good day good day horrible day awful day, addressed with everyday routines; his 2020 Ivor Novello-winning piece, Honey Siren, was based on the siren’s rushing past sound that is a common metropolitan sound.


“Here it is tuned and used, as opposed to just raising it, as the film does,” he claims. “The wolves howl, yet they are singing in tune, and the birds genuinely sing melodies. Also a prevalent motif are breakfast dishes. Cereal is poured in an excessively loud and melodious manner. It functions much like a film’s zoom. “OK, that’s what I’m looking at, that’s what I’m focusing on,” you say all of a sudden.


The mix of “banality and magic” in the movie and Kurt Cobain’s persona, as well as the fact that he is still relevant today, 28 years after his passing, were the attractions for Copson. The relevance and prevalence of this archetype, which seems to me at least to say something about the contemporary condition we all find ourselves in, is what I think makes it interesting and, most importantly, what makes it interesting in 2022 – which is very different even from when the film was made. Everyone is on show in a way that they weren’t previously when you talk to a young person, and privacy concerns are always raised. The fundamental question, “Am I a member of society or an individual? Do I have the freedom to express myself? What exactly does it mean to express oneself? What is liberty?


New operas are mostly just about issues – and that’s the dullest thing


“I think the reason why this archetype, this Kurt figure, remains relevant is because he so heavily demonstrated that paradox. He held so many contradictions within himself. His suicide note says, ‘I love people too much’, then it says, ‘I hate people.’ He’s like a walking paradox, and I think those are really important and beautiful figures for us to grapple with, because it’s an extremity of what I personally feel all the time.”


All three are eager for Last Days to be seen by more people despite its obvious oddity, garbled speech, and absence of a storyline in a society where opera is seen as a threatening art form. Oliver says that productions are divisive. “New operas are usually simply topics, and that’s the dullest thing; that’s the opera about climate change, that’s whatever. It’s too basic.


“I think it should resonate,” says Morrissey of Last Days. “You should feel something. You should feel really moved. I don’t think consensus and agreement is a thing we want en masse, but rather individual understanding or resonance with yourself.”


“I think we’re united on one front,” says Copson. “We’re all like, ‘We just want people to feel and then they’ll gradually find it accessible as a form.’ And that doesn’t mean dumbing it down.”


Last Days is at the Linbury theatre, Royal Opera House, London, from 7 to 11 October. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247.


Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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