What: Marilyn Forever
Where: McPherson Playhouse
When: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $42.50 250-386-6121
The evergreen subject of books, films, theatre and music, Marilyn Monroe may be pop culture’s most scrutinized icon.
But Gavin Bryars, Britain’s leading post-minimalist composer, is not deterred.
The part-time Metchosin resident has composed a new chamber opera about Monroe, Marilyn Forever, having its world première Friday in Victoria. The librettist is his friend Marilyn Bowering, a Sooke novelist and poet.
Bryars, a burly 70-year-old Yorkshireman who wore a Los Angles Kings T-shirt during an interview, recalled a friend telling him Monroe was already a “well-trolled” subject for an opera. How could one possibly say anything new about the world’s most celebrated sex symbol?
“But then he said, ‘I also note you did a piece on the Titanic, which is also a well-trolled subject,’ ” said the composer, perched on the porch of his century-old farmhouse.
The Sinking of the Titanic is a milestone of British experimental music. Premièred in 1972, it hinges on Bryars’ notion of how music played on the Titanic might reverberate after the ship is swallowed by the sea. The piece was performed last December at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre by Victoria’s Aventa Ensemble, which commissioned Marilyn Forever.
Bryars’ best known — and perhaps most notorious — creation is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971). Built around a tape loop of a hymn-singing tramp, the conceptual composition builds hauntingly as strings and horns are gradually added. Some adore it. Others find its repetition maddening (especially the 75-minute version) — something to which Bryars cheerfully admits.
Marilyn Forever promises to be more accessible. Copenhagen’s Eivør Pálsdóttir will star as Monroe in the one-act, 90-minute opera.
The striking blond singer hails from the Faroe Islands, a tiny country 200 miles north of Scotland. As a teen she gigged with the rock band Clickhaze. However, Pálsdóttir — a well-known figure in her homeland — is today best known for jazz-inflected balladry sung in Faroese, Icelandic and English.
Pálsdóttir, chatting between rehearsals, said Marilyn Forever commences unconventionally with the movie star’s death. “She’s lying dead in her bed and she kind of wakes up. And her thoughts go back,” the 30-year-old said.
She worked with Bryars five years ago, performing a piece called Tróndur i Gotu. In Marilyn Forever, aside from a couple of sequences, she makes no attempt to replicate Monroe’s breathy delivery. Pálsdóttir deliberately sings in her own voice, which at times sounds ethereal — somewhat reminiscent of Björk and Kate Bush.
“My biggest challenge is probably [Monroe’s] body language. And the link between not trying to sound like her, but still being her. That’s quite a challenge, actually. It’s Marilyn with a different voice,” she said.
Baritone Thomas Sandberg plays the different men in Monroe’s life. Marilyn Forever is conducted by the Aventa Ensemble’s artistic leader Bill Linwood, with stage direction by Joel Ivany. An eight-piece orchestra includes pianist Tony Genge, saxophonist Phil Dwyer and Bryars on double-bass. At times, the three play separately as a jazz trio — the notion is they’re rehearsing with Monroe for a recording session on the final day of her life.
Bryars says he prefers playing bass for his musical projects when it’s feasible. He feels uncomfortable watching his works being performed as part of the audience, sitting there with nothing to do.
He first played bass professionally as a philosophy student at Sheffield University in the early 1960s. He was in a jazz trio called Joseph Holbrooke (named after the English composer, the combo is considered a pioneer of the U.K. free jazz movement). Bryars would gig regularly until 2 a.m., typically skipping morning classes.
It was around this time that Bryars developed a fascination with Marilyn Monroe. He recalls obsessively watching her 1961 film The Misfits for an entire week.
Back then, British cinema-goers typically saw two films in a row — an “A” and “B” feature. Bryars would watch The Misfits, read the movie’s script while the second feature played, then watch The Misfits once more.
“Obviously,” Bryars said, “I thought very highly of it.”
The appeal? He admired Arthur Miller’s script. Also compelling was the fact The Misfits was the last film for both Clark Gable and Monroe, as well as being one of Montgomery Clift’s final movie outings.
“There was a sense it was the end of a whole group. And the film itself was about the end of a world, this world of rounding up horses and so forth, this whole neo-cowboy world,” Bryars said.
Most of all, there was that intangible something about Marilyn Monroe. Bryars’ interest was rekindled when he read Bowering’s 1987 book of poems about Monroe, Anyone Can See I Love You. Bowering also created a stage and a radio version — the latter was broadcast by the CBC and the BBC.
She says Marilyn Forever is intended to reflect the experience of life flashing before one’s eyes, as is said to happen when death looms. There are “psychological moments, reflections, reminiscences an so on,” she said, adding: “Basically, she’s discovering and saying who she is through this night.”
Bryars says there’s something “Shakespearean” in the way Marilyn Forever presents Monroe at a moment of tragedy. Bowering, too, alluded to the opera’s classical structure. She hopes audiences experience an emotional catharsis, a feeling of being transported through feelings of pity, grief and joy.
Marilyn Forever was workshopped in 2010 over a two-week residency at the Banff Centre, with Pálsdóttir participating. The pair of performances at the McPherson Playhouse mark the opera’s official debut. Due to Bryars’ international stature, the event has attracted interest from publications such as Opera magazine.
This is Bryars’ fourth opera. The others are Medea, staged in 1984 at Opéra de Lyon and Opéra de Paris, Doctor Ox’s Experiment, directed by Atom Egoyan and staged in 1998 by the English National Opera, and G (2002).
Marilyn Forever appears destined for a life beyond Victoria. Bryars said companies in San Francisco, Wexford, Ireland, and Adelaide, Australia, have all expressed interest in staging the opera.
Still, the composer, with typically wry humour, refuses to count his chickens just yet.
“We sound terribly confident about the piece. But I have really no idea about it at all. I’m always incredibly down on any new work I do.
“It could be an absolutely pile of garbage,” he added, with a grin. “And I’ll find out very soon.”