Notes on ROSA, an opera on film by Peter Greenaway & Louis Andriessen

The following programme notes were written for the U.S. film premiere of The Death of a Composer: Rosa, a Horse Drama, at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, New York on May 3, 2004. The event formed part of ‘Sonic Evolutions: A Louis Andriessen Festival’.

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When we visit the cinema, we don’t generally expect the actors to descend from the screen (except, of course, in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo), so we don’t tend to look for line a continuity between the projected image and the world in which we live. ROSA: The Death of a Composer (1994) invites us to imagine a new kind of theatre, a fusion of opera house and cinema, which stems from Peter Greenaway’s radical vision of a total artwork, or “mega-cinema”. Not surprisingly, the film version of ROSA, created from the 1994 stage production, is much more than a recorded performance. Animated words fly across the screen, presenting word-as-image and word-as-text in equal measure, in combination with a dynamic approach to visual framing, all in order to emphasize the artificiality of opera and its conventions.

Many of Greenaway’s films form part of a larger project and break their cinematic boundaries to provide material for art exhibitions, books and websites (The Tulse Luper Suitcases makes a current example). As it happens, Greenaway began ROSA by writing a book that describes many of the curious things one might encounter at an opera. He sent it to Louis Andriessen to start their second collaboration, following the success of M is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991). In fact, the composer never did receive a conventional libretto for ROSA and had to distil his own text from Greenaway’s prose instead. Andriessen and Greenaway share a highly individual understanding of music/art history and a taste for the ironic, particularly the technique of selecting a certain aesthetic or style, disconnecting it from its roots and resetting it within a new context.

ROSA comprises three main sections. First, we hear the overture and are introduced to the principal singers, the setting (an abattoir in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, 1957) and the possibility of a conspiracy against composers, beginning with Anton Webern in 1945 and ending with John Lennon in 1980. Second, we watch a reconstruction of events leading to the shooting of  composer, Juan Manuel de Rosa, by two mysterious cowboys while hightailing him on horseback. Finally, we see an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Rosa’s death along with a little taxidermy and a crucifixion. Given its harmonica homage to Morricone’s soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in the West and its portrayal of Rosa as a rich, though inept, movie composer, ROSA can comfortably be described as a satire of Hollywood, particularly of Westerns. Undoubtedly, it is also a disturbing piece, full of Greenaway’s preoccupation with death, decay and human corporeality, yet the graphic power of its uninhibited staging is well balanced by numerous instances of self-parody, implying that it takes neither its subject nor its status as opera very seriously. There is a kicking of theatrical boundaries when the Gigolos mock Rosa, who is lying dead on the floor: “Wake up, Rosa. Like your feet…Your acting stinks”. And there is a gibe at musical elitism when the murder investigation discloses the possibility that the assassination could have been committed by Rosa’s former Parisian professors, “disgusted their efforts have been trivialized by contact with Hollywood”. Through its lampooning of such things, we may read ROSA as a cartoon, with all the usual violence and puerile nastiness, matched perfectly by Andriessen’s tremendous score, which makes an explosive mixture of the aggressive and the refined, the jazzy and the austere.

The silence of the rain that falls after Esmerelda has been stuffed inside the horse is exquisitely timed, not least on account of its lending a certain inevitability to the fire that purges the last scene and brings the opera to a close. A final, cathartic act of mental cleansing occurs during the credits when ‘The Index-Singer’ raps an alphabetic list of things encountered in the work. Apparently, this was a relatively unplanned finish to the opera, a product of the dress rehearsal, which Andriessen and Greenaway decided to keep. Indeed, it is fitting that it has become an integral part of the work, since it neatly snaps a visual image of our having reached the last pages of a book, which, of course, is exactly how the opera began.

Copyright © N.G. Brown, 2004