Imagine the Arias: Pop Operas From Milli Vanilli to Lana Del Rey and Beyond!

by James Rickman
It's about Milli Vanilli, and it's about time. WOW, a work-in-progress closing out its brief run this weekend at BRIC House, recasts the Milli Vanilli story as an experimental opera, using spontaneous composition and live-feed video to explore the notorious CD skipping incident of 1989. (To recap, a faulty backing track at a concert compelled the band's creator to admit that Rob and Fab didn't sing their own songs, live or in the studio.) While we certainly don't revel in Milli Vanilli's downfall, we did start thinking about other pop stars whose struggles with authenticity would make for really smashing operas.

La(na) Traviata

Taking a cue from WOW, which "challenges the endless repetition of the CD-skip moment," this immersive theatrical experience frames the space with two giant screens -- one showing old footage of Del Rey's short-lived singer-songwriter phase, when she was known as Lizzy Grant, and the other looping the listless pirouettes of her notorious Saturday Night Live performance. Critical hatchet jobs, blog rants and Brian Williams' face flash across these images. The audience is encouraged to get up and explore, perusing the dusty acoustic guitar, the boxes of Lana Del Ray [sic] a.k.a. Lizzy Grant CDs, the checkered vans and Ben Sherman polo shirts from the ska phase she almost certainly had -- while the lead contralto sits on the floor, phone in hand, singing real-time hate-tweets to the tune of "Once Upon a Dream."

Born With These

Innocence clashes with puritanical fervor in a heartbreaking piece based on the travails of the goth-glam metal band Black Veil Brides. Last year, a photograph surfaced of the band playing in front of a tower of fake speaker cabinets. Singer Andy Biersack tweeted this in response: "We use staging in our stage show. Also these are tattoos, I wasn't born with the batman logo on my arm." The title song sees Biersack stark naked in a shrinking pool of light. As the music fades, he touches his Batman tattoo and says, "Actually, that one's henna."

La Sinfonia Agrodolce

In which a young ensemble on its way to superstardom is waylaid by a ribald band of pirates who uproariously demand full credit for a song they didn't write. Viewers will notice a resemblance to the "Bittersweet Symphony" case, in which the Rolling Stones and their army of lawyers managed to transform the Verve's hit song (which contained a sample of a rearranged Stones song) into a Jagger-Richards composition. Hence the scene in which the young bandleader, now penniless, delivers his plaintive aria, "You Guys Are Fucking Dicks."

Patty No-Takes

In a time of confusion and corpulence (the middle-Clinton years), Hole drummer Patty Schemel is exiled from the studio during the making of Celebrity Skin, her parts steamrolled by an uncredited studio drummer whom Schemel bitterly refers to as "Johnny One-Take" in the documentary Hit So Hard. But unlike the documentary, the opera comes to an anguished climax with "Take 1,000": while the villainous producer demands take after take (think "Night Train" from Einstein on the Beach, or "39 Lashes" from Jesus Christ Superstar), Schemel rises miserably from her drums and is carried offtage by a chorus of men in wrestling shoes and fingerless leather gloves.

Boney in the USSR

Inspired by the groundbreaking Nixon in China, this Iron Curtain-ruffling spectacular follows megaplatinum dance act Boney M on its 1978 tour of the Soviet Union. Bandleader Bobby Farrell gives a tour de force performance when Boney M performs in Red Square, lifting the spirits of almost 3,000 Russians with songs like "Baby Do You Wanna Bump." The band's mysterious creator, Frank Farian, watches from the wings, at one point stepping downstage to sing the ominous "Needs Stretch Pants." As we learn in a chilling coda, Farian goes on to create Milli Vanilli.

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