The November GMH meeting saw Kevin Malone give a talk
entitled Mark Twain Opera “Mysterious 44”.
Kevin began by explaining his upbringing in a religious Lutheran family. He happily went along with everything he was taught about God and his religion until at the age of 10 he came across a book by Mark Twain entitled Mysterious Stranger. Though originally written by Mark Twain it was unfinished at his death and completed posthumously by his editor. Kevin recalled that this book, “scared the life out of me”, and started him on a path of questioning his faith.
At age 11 there was a bus campaign in his home town with the message “God is Dead”. This added to his doubts and at this point he stopped going to church. He still battled with his belief in the divine though and managed to resolve his love of science and maths with theism by concluding that they were based on rules and that God therefore had created those rules.
Later in life as part of his musical studies he moved to Paris to study at the Paris Conservatoire. While there he decided to study the bible in fine detail, to the extent that he mapped out where and when the biblical events were supposed to have occurred. And in so doing, he confesses, he became an agnostic.
Kevin went on to talk about how the opera came about and how it was constructed. The book itself was set in Austria in 1490 but the events of 9/11 in 2001 were a key influence. In fact the opening of the opera features a piece involving a single cello and recordings of the New York air traffic controllers talking to flight crews in the air space at the time of the attacks on the twin towers. You can clearly hear one controller repeatedly trying unsuccessfully to obtain voice contact with flight ‘American 77’. The cello piece was appropriately entitled Requiem 77. Kevin talked about some of his other influences including the film the Unbelievers and Woody Allen films.
A key character in the book, hence the opera, is 44 - an angel with supernatural powers. Using a video extract from the opera, Kevin explained how in a scene reminiscent of an old testament story, 44 enables two human characters to magically create their own human specimens which rapidly evolve into less than perfect beings that do wicked things. Consequently the two characters beg 44 to destroy their creations. This whole scene really showed off Kevin’s musical skill as it interwove traditional operatic style musical dialogue with electronic incidental music and classical choral sequences.
Another key feature of the opera is Richard Dawkins’ voice which features at various points in the opera.
Richard was also one of the financial backers of the opera along with The Arts Council and the University. Kevin recounted how Dawkins was a willing contributor to the project and an able voice actor but was very hard to tie down time-wise to actually do the recordings.
Bringing the conversation back to the matter of religion, Kevin talked about how the credibility of an idea or a doctrine is enhanced by performance. Simply reading or stating something evokes one level of consciousness but singing it, as with church hymns, seeks to reinforce that idea, especially when promoted by institutions. Religions have, Kevin surmised, known this and exploited it for a long time.
You can see the latest version of the opera at the following locations in the New Year:
25 January - Manchester premiere at the Royal Northern College of Music, Studio Theatre, starting at 7pm. Tickets available from RNCM box office 0161 907 5555 and at www.tickets.rncm.ac.uk (they haven't been listed on their website yet).
27 January at the John Thaw Theatre, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, Bridgeford St, Univ of Manchester. (Starting time is 7 or 7:30pm - awaiting Centre's decision).
29 January at Ordsall Hall, Salford during daytime for secondary school children performance.
1 February at Central Library, Manchester Performance Space 1 (TBC).