This week’s guest post was written by Daný van Dam, who recently submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorian fiction at Cardiff University.
Together with Megen and with Akira Suwa, she is putting together a special issue of the online journal Assuming Gender on the theme of ‘Consuming Gender’ (submission deadline 16 October 2016, see here). At present, Daný is setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing.
Five women are missing. One was last seen when visiting a travelling circus. A well-off family notified the police when their daughter went missing after meeting someone in town – not long after, the girl’s mother also disappeared. A fourth woman, struggling with mental health issues, hasn’t been heard from since her first visit to a psychiatrist. Considering her state, the police are concerned about suicide. The fifth woman disappeared close to an old cemetery – people in the neighbourhood claim the cemetery is used for dark and satanic rituals. The police are looking for clues. The only name that links all five women is Dr. M…
A few weeks ago, we went to the theatre for my birthday present – a performance. At this point, my birthday was long past, but due to a bout of the flu, I’d missed my original gift. I chose to drag my partner, who’s less of a classical music buff than I am, along to a performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion by the Dutch, The Hague-based company OPERA2DAY. This blog provides some details about the show as well as my opinion about it.
OPERA2DAY are known for their alternative approaches to classical performances – in 2012 and 2013, they performed a collection of ‘lamenti’ – melancholic songs – by different composers in an old and empty hospital building in The Hague under the title Dolhuys Kermis. The title, which can be translated as ‘madhouse fair’, refers to asylums and madhouses in earlier centuries being open to the (paying) public for visiting, so people could gape at the supposed madness within.
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion was performed in the Royal Theatre in The Hague, but here, too, OPERA2DAY didn’t limit themselves to the stage. The performance was preceded by a selection of ‘side programmes’ in the different foyers of the theatre. The indefinability and repetitiveness of these mini-performances pointed back to the madness of Dolhuys Kermis – and of course, the theme of madness returns in Dr. Miracle, with one of the five women disappearing after a visit to a psychiatrist.
Dr. Miracle’s potential victim is not the only one in the performance who may be mad – another candidate is the good doctor himself. Dr. Miracle is a travelling illusionist. During one of his shows, he makes a mistake, leading to the death of an unknown young woman he asked to participate in the act. As she dies, Dr. Miracle catches a glimpse of what he thinks is the eternal light of the hereafter. Inspired by this experience, Dr. Miracle continues to experiment in an attempt to capture the moment of transition between life and death, but his attempts become increasingly cruel. As he becomes more and more willing to risk the lives of others, Dr. Miracle loses his own grip on life and the everyday world, no longer able to distinguish between the real and the illusionary.
With Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, OPERA2DAY wants to bring to life the period from the fin de siècle to the early twentieth century. While spiritualism was still a popular form of entertainment at this time (and taken seriously by many of its followers), scientific developments also rationalised what was before seen as mysterious and magical. Illusionism and spiritualism became increasingly close, with illusionists seemingly knowing things beyond what was normally possible and offering communications with the dead.
Dr. Miracle is played by Woedy Woet, a prize-winning Dutch illusionist who performs the tricks taking place on stage. His role is a silent one, though Tom Jansen provides a voice-over representing the doctor’s thoughts. In the programme booklet of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, director Serge van Veggel provides a historical background for the performance. Writing about opera, he states that, like many things, operas mirrored the concerns of their age. Magic, psychology and spiritualism, as well as a touch of horror, played a large role in nineteenth and early twentieth-century opera. The pieces sung and performed in Dr. Miracle do not come from one opera. Instead, the performance can be considered a ‘pasticcio’ – the Italian word for pasty, in which various elements become one coherent dish. Pieces from operas and ballets from, among others, Bellini, Offenbach, Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky are brought together to create a new narrative with different meanings. At the same time, the familiar pieces evoke their original contexts, providing the performance with additional layers.
Director Van Veggel also engages with performance history, seeing nineteenth and twentieth-century developments in recording imagery and sound as a way for performers to be given a life beyond death. The three sopranos taking the roles of three of Dr. Miracle’s victims perform in the ‘bel canto’ singing tradition, which focused on refinement and elegance, singing in the service of the text and the performance as a whole. They provide an homage to legendary opera singers from Dr. Miracle’s age, especially Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Adelina Patti.
While Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion is a wonderful piece of work, the performance itself (the actual opera and dance pieces, taking place on stage) did not live up to the standard set by the larger whole around it. To be fair, this may have been because my expectations were very high. Nevertheless, the show as a whole was definitely worth visiting.
If you happen to read this from the Netherlands and are willing to invest a few hours of your time: for each performance, OPERA2DAY needs several volunteers for a moment of audience-participation. These volunteers get to attend the performance for free. For more information, see here (in Dutch).