An opera with music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle
and words by Russell Hoban
, telling the, ah, rather unusual love story of King Kong
, Hoban's name for the enigmatically beautiful girl in Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring
. It premiered at Glyndebourne
Other characters include Vermeer himself, Anubis, and Orpheus. The orchestration includes saxophone, cimbalom, accordion, woodblock, and gunfire. Some of it is reprised from the original 1933 film. Birtwistle is both an enfant terrible and a grand old man of British music. His music can still be shocking, but it is now a classic. The Second Mrs Kong is probably one of his more accessible works.
It starts in the underworld, where the dead reside. But the King Kong who is here along with many others is not the dead ape on the pavement, but the living eternal idea of Kong. He is trying to understand his continued existence, and discusses it with the painter Vermeer, who relives his first meeting with the girl Pearl whom he would take as his subject. Pearl and Kong, or their images, make contact through a mirror. King Kong decides to seek her out, and is guided by Orpheus who is searching for his Eurydice. The psychopomp between the two worlds is Anubis. There are also some invented characters: Mr Dollarama, Swami Zumzum, and Madame Lena. The Sumerian goddess Inanna is also Mrs Dollarama.
Once in the world of the living, Kong and Orpheus encounter and battle Doubt, Fear, Despair and Terror. They enter a city. Kong finds a public telephone but has no change. However, Orpheus is well known for charming anything, and charms the telephone to get a free call to Pearl's penthouse. Then they meet Anubis, now in the form of the Death of Kong, who wants to get Kong back, arguing that his idea is dead.
In the end Kong and Pearl can never be united. Both are merely images, memories, continuing to exist because of our consciousness of them.
As I write I'm listening to a broadcast of a concert performance from a few days ago, the London premiere. The Second Mrs Kong was very popular at Glyndebourne and is a well-known Birtwistle work, but has not yet entered the repertoire, it seems. It is strange, complex, somewhat discordant, yearning, interesting. I suppose it takes time and rehearing to let it sink in properly.
Russell Hoban wrote these moving words about Pearl and the idea of Pearl:
I have looked at many reproductions of Girl With a Pearl Earring; several are before me now as I write, and I know that what happens with these is what would happen with the original: no matter how steadily I look at her I cannot see her continuously; she is like music, always partly now and partly remembered. In her look is the terror of Creation, in her eyes a question that can never be answered; on her lips a word never to be spoken. Of course the lost and lonely child that is the idea of Kong will cross the soul's dark sea to find her, and it is in the nature of things that these two predestined lovers can never have each other. But it is the longing for what cannot be that moves the world from night to morning.