Don't miss: Boys of ParadiseInterview
After its sold-out run in 2015, workshOPERA and Tête à Tête are bringing back Boys of Paradise, October 15-21 at EGG London. The “genre-breaking” opera by composer Vahan Salorian and librettist Dominic Kimberlin is a real life-inspired story of three friends - Twink, Cub, and Fag Hag - and their debaucherous, erotic, drug-fueled night out at London’s hottest gay club, Paradaezia. The best part: audiences are immersed and involved with the story and characters.
We spoke with Vahan Salorian about the unique history of Boys of Paradise, from his drawing upon the Pheonix mythology, to writing his “Cocaine Waltz.”
You admit to having a hard time connecting with opera as a general concept - why then did you decide to write one?
Partly for the challenge of writing a contemporary opera that I might enjoy and choose to go to. Also, when writing music I’ve always enjoyed having a theatrical element to it- a film/dance or just some other art form going on. I find it more engaging and ultimately rewarding.
Also, my two friends from university I was studying composition with had just started their amazing opera company, workshOPERA, that aimed to put on different, new and site specific productions and I thought it was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss. The amount of funding it normally takes to put on even a small production is so huge nowadays, but when we premiered it briefly last year, everyone worked for free. Almost all the cast and orchestra and production team were just my friends from Guildhall.
This story and it’s inspiration are quite personal to me, and opera had always seemed like the ideal form it should be told in. My experiences and those of the people I knew in that world were so heightened from reality and that’s exactly what opera does so well- tell these epic, crazy, sometimes farcical, often tragic stories. A straight up musical seemed a little to obvious as well.
What care did you take with Boys of Paradise, to make it a meaningful story rather than a night full of shock value?
Myself, Dominic (the librettist) and Anna (the director) were always sure that we weren’t aiming for shock value. I always found it cringe-y to watch contemporary opera with lots of swearing or overt sex where it had clearly been put in to be ‘edge-y’. What goes on in the opera is meant to be a representation of what often goes on some gay clubs in Vauxhall (obviously with a little artistic license!) and some of those things are crazy and fantastical enough without us needing to sex them up.
We have a ‘Cocaine Waltz’ that takes place in the clubs bathroom, for example. Or our lead (Twink) accidentally finds himself lost in a dark room. The importance is the story, and the journey Twink goes on - which is a journey I’m sure many people will be able to relate to.
What kind of musical aesthetic and instrumentation did you imagine for this kind of world?
Originally I had planned on actually incorporating electronic dance music alongside the acoustic orchestra, maybe one day I’ll come back to the opera and do that, but it became clear to me early on that we were telling a mythological, fantasy tale as much as we were telling a story of three friends exploring a gay club and so being true to the specific setting wasn’t so important.
The whole show is an analogy of the [Phoenix mythology](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(mythology), a bird that burns brighter and brighter and then burns out. This is such a classic, ancient story, and our characters are off their faces for the majority of the show, so I felt okay with sticking to a quirky, acoustic instrumentation. Also it was a fun challenge to conjure up the feelings of euphoria when coming up on ecstasy, or getting drunk, using conventional instruments.
As far as an aesthetic, I think I’ve drawn little bits of inspiration from everywhere- there’s definitely some musical theatre moments as well as contemporary classical, pop etc. I did like the idea of returning to the idea of ‘the aria’ - a big catchy tune that people would remember.
How site-specific is Boys of Paradise? Could it go up in a more traditional theatre venue?
I guess it could - but I don’t know if I would want it to or it would be as much fun. The immersive aspect was integral to conception of the piece. In the past we have made up a warehouse space to look like a club. I feel the audience would be too distanced from the action if they were sat down in rows or we were up above them on a stage. Putting the performance on at EGG London is a dream- we have a real DJ booth, club lighting, bar etc.
What are your thoughts on drug and sex imagery in many new productions of traditional opera?
I think it’s admirable to try and bring these older works into modern settings. My only issue is if it is purely as a gimmick, and doesn’t actually lend anything to the original story, or get followed through to the end. We can’t just drag these operas through every possible setting/era and risqué situation. Let’s write some new ones(!)
What do you hope listeners will take away from Boys of Paradise?
Firstly, an appreciation of the huge and wonderful grey area between sitting at the ROH or watching a juke-box musical on the west end or an atonal, contemporary opera in a tiny studio somewhere. That the combination of music and theatre can fit any tastes and it’s very exciting.
Secondly, for people who may have had no experience of contact with the world we are representing, that these stories are real and are happening all the time. It may be eye-opening to some.
Thirdly, I hope people will leave having had a great experience, because Boys of Paradise is hopefully an experience beyond just sitting and listening to some wonderful musicians and some funny jokes. Something a bit new to entice people in.
Boys of Paradise runs October 15-21, 19:30 and 21:30 at Egg London. For details and tickets, click here.