“It’s just so weird, Mom” – A review of Neuwirth’s Orlando

VIENNA – Olga Neuwirth’s opera “Orlando” would be brilliant if it was an earnest attempt to troll reviewers. Its reception smacks of a hidden camera prank show where top food critics share apologias about the tv dinners they were unwittingly served.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the New York Times’ painful efforts to not pan the show. Several cautious NYT critics neutrally described the performance while reminding readers it is the first performance at the Vienna Opera written and designed entirely by women. More poignantly, the lone New York times article speaking the truth about the emperor’s new clothes was buried under a mitigating headline: “Review: ‘Orlando’ Opera Is a Milestone but No More, in Vienna.”

After two paragraphs paying homage to the glass ceiling composer Olga Neuwirth apparently shattered by being the first woman to have specific type of performing art played at a specific venue – a feat otherwise unheard of in the misogynistic realm of the arts – New York Times critic Joshua Barone spends 13 paragraphs explaining on an how Orlando is simply unenjoyable on every level.

He calls the writing “sophomoric,” the themes “cringe-worthy,” and the lyrical content “an afterthought.” It is not clear whether the “cognitive dissonance” induced by de-tuned violins is meant to be a compliment or not, but he sums his reaction to the end of the performance with a sigh of relief: “at last.”

Such a review is too honest. So the New York Times neutralized it with a distracting headline the review is certainly not about. The truth of the show must give way to a narrative about passing “milestones” on the track of upward female mobility, at least until future narratives demand the past be rewritten bleakly once again. That is the New York Times’ role: protection of the narrative, not warning subscribers their money might be wasted on a terrible show.

About that: I don’t want to be mean, but if there is any such thing as an objective theory of aesthetics – if it is possible for music to be good or bad, colors to be pretty or dull, voices to be grating or pleasant – then Orlando is objectively bad. It is an attempt to challenge every expectation on every level for the full 3-hour duration of the performance, which results in rank confusion. That isn’t fun, and it isn’t entertainment for anyone who doesn’t force themselves to believe it is.

If you replace a building on my street corner, I can tell you what used to be there. If you replace all the buildings, I cannot. You have removed all my points of reference. Neuwirth is that city planner, who goes to pains to undermine every theory of music and aesthetics at once, save the theory that such a trolling campaign is an art in itself. The latter would be brilliant, but sadly, Orlando seems too sincere for that.

Orlando premiered at the Vienna State Opera on December 7, 2019, and disappeared by December 19, 2019, though it seems destined to haunt other venues. It is based on the Virginia Wolf novel of the same name – a story about a young man who relevantly becomes a woman, but never ages during her 300+ years of life. Because it was so new, I did not know what to expect when I paid money for my entire family to sit in the mittelloge box.

Any music student ever forced to sit through an associate professor’s fantasy about challenging western music with dissonant sounds at random pacings will recognize the concept undergirding Orlando. Neuwirth squeezes an extreme number of notes out of each syllable, few of which seem to share the same scales. The result is random, not subversive. It would be subversive if they consistently avoided sharing scales. Instead, they occasionally catch melodies that remind you how much talent is being wasted on the stage.

The second violins are intentionally tuned down one semitone to create perpetually unresolved dissonance and then played arrhythmically, so it feels like a personality conflict among the orchestra that never concludes with the satisfaction of an actual fistfight.

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Neuwirth celebrates those as “androgynous sounds, where you don’t even know anymore who is playing.” Neverminding that assumes sounds ordinarily have genders, it is a curious goal to prevent the audience from comprehending what they are hearing. The conductor, Matthias Pintscher, defends the score as an “ardent search for the inside life of sound,” which is a nonsensical thing to say about a pre-arranged musical score.

The costumes are just as disjointed as the music because Neuwirth “wanted costumes that deconstructed and reconstructed tradition in clothing.” Dresses are covered in disconnected or contradictory lines. Headpieces defy functionality. Some colors are rich a complimentary while others clash. I guess you could call that a “deconstruction,” especially if you have deconstructed that word itself.

The backdrop displays projected verbiage that looks to be typed as the scenes progress. The language does not always square with the story. At one point, the narrator reads it aloud: “children were often sexually assaulted during the Victorian era. At that time, the patriarchal family was still idealized.” Because, bear in mind, behind this opera, men in dominant family roles rape their children. Really. But maybe it’s a compliment. Hard to know if Neuwirth is sticking with the traditional concept of “sexual assault” or a deconstructed one.

Between each set change, a spinning dreidel is projected onto the curtain, which, having nothing to do with the story, suggests Neuwirth has a narcissistic need to inject herself into the story.

But most disappointing of all is the banal libretto. A character vows to rewrite women’s history. A character denounces the patriarchy. A character cribs lyrics from a Lady Gaga song. The declamations of the modern world and the Donald Trump era (his distorted likeness and voice appear at some point) grow tired before ending with what Barone calls “a cringe-worthy litany of liberal causes.” I suspect liberals would especially find it cringeworthy. Even pandering and overly simplified. The “causes” are just declarations that are never realized. Nothing ever happens. In a culminating moment, Orlando’s gender-fluid child tells her, “just be who you are!” See what I mean? It looks like the opera equivalent of a 4-Chan prank on critics.

I kept a stone face as I looked around at my fellow attendees on the mittelloge balcony. One patron hung his head and pulled at his face with his hand. The gentleman next to me was a regular who gave me a tour during the intermission. I watched his right-hand dance when it caught an occasional melody before falling back to his lap, discouraged by the dissonance and frustrated rhythms. A young German man who later told my wife it was his second opera whispered loudly, “what the fuck?” Apparently, he had seen La Boheme the night before and loved it. The Vienna Opera deserves criticism for allowing these patrons to spend €570 to see a show that should have been better vetted. But nothing summarized the performance like my own children as they politely begged my wife to leave early: “it’s just so weird, Mom.” Indeed. From the mouths of babes.


Written by John Fairfax

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