Opera: Ivo Josipović / Lennon

Croatian National Theatre Zagreb Orchestra
Composed by Ivo Josipović
Libretto by Marina Biti
Domagoj Dorotić (John Lennon), Dubravka Šeparović Mušović (May), Marija Kuhar Šoša (Yoko Ono), Ozren Bilušić (Chapman), Kristina Anđelka Đopar (Mimi), Sofia Ameli Gojić (Julia, Count’s fiancée), Helena Lucić Šego (Cyntia), Siniša Galović (Paul), Dario Ćurić (Stu), Davor Radić (Ringo), Siniša Hapač (George), Alen Ruško (Julian), Siniša Štork (Brian), Borko Bajutti, Noa Vlčev (Young Lennons), Ivan Josip Skender (conductor)

Up in the wee hours this morning to screen a new-ish opera that sounded intriguing. From the mind of Croatian composer Ivo Josipović comes Lennon – a surrealist fantasy about 20th Century pop icon John Lennon that focuses on his post-assassination travel through purgatory. 

These wacky 21st Century composers. They’re always up to some devilment or other!

Interestingly, Josipović, the composer and mastermind behind this work, is a former president of Croatia. Opera-penning presidents, I’ll have to take some time warming up to the idea. Josipović’s creative cohort in this project was Marina Biti, who came up with the libretto and developed the dramatic concept. This premiere, presented by the Croatian National Theatre, is the first operatic effort for the team.

The plot of Lennon fixates on the assassination of John Lennon and an imagined afterlife where the musician interacts with a whirling rotation of the most important people in his former life. A lot of time is devoted to the assassination event and the psychology of the murderer, Mark Chapman. I found this part of the plot line to be a not very engaging or interesting one because it elevates a bland, psychotic dweeb to the same level of a culture-changing musical artist. 

However, the creators of Lennon seemed to be dazzled by the value to be had from mining the riches of tragedy from that cultural event and how it might hold the story together. As a result we are presented with a collection of operatic scenes which lurch from one allegorical episode to another without much finesse or dramatic measure.

And it struck me as a little strange that a composer and librettist would find developing the character of an assassin as interesting as for the musican he shoots to death. What kind of self-abasing psychology is at work here? I think that before they ever attempt another work for the stage, Josipović and Biti might benefit from some kind of opera team couples therapy.

The members of the audience who came to this production expecting a retrospective of the life of the man who inspired this piece of theater found that they were in for something else altogether. Lennon librettist Marina Biti has fashioned an occasionally interesting take on the man’s life and mythology, and one that is much more imaginative than what many musical dramatists would have attempted (one shudders to think of the jukebox musical that a load of Broadway hacks would have made out of it). But I found myself a little perplexed watching Croatian tenor Domagoj Dorotić, fine as he was in voice, spending the bulk of his stage time being hectored by an assassin surrounded by a chorus of people dressed in identical white suits made famous by the real John Lennon on the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

The real life assassin of John Lennon, Mark Chapman, is represented in the cast roster by just his surname: ‘Chapman’. Makes him seem so much more evil, somehow. Putin. Hitler. Dillinger. Kissinger. Chapman.

The singer who plays this character, Ozren Bilušić, is a decent singer and actor, but he has such a thick Croatian accent I had to check the credits to make sure the part wasn’t played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He even refers to the name of the title character as “Lennon John” per Eastern European name order convention. I dunno, I think if the shoe was on the other foot and I had to sing a big part in a Serbian-language opera concerning the life of Slobodan Milošević I think I’d hire a vocal coach at least try to get the accent right?

The singers who stood out in this premiere were Domagoj Dorotić as Lennon, Dario Ćurić as Stu and Siniša Štork as Brian (Epstein). Dorotić’s Lennon in particular was strong with enough presence to carry this production through its many rough patches. To my ears the female leads were weaker and their acting styles a mixed bag; some were passable, others annoying.

As with the singing of the Chapman character, some of these women really massacre English pronunciation and delivery. Helena Lucić Šego, playing Lennon’s first wife Cyntia (her name was Balkanized from the actual Cynthia), rolls her R’s and aaahs her A’s with such vigor she seems more like a cartoon Yugoslavian spy than a passive domestic partner. These accent issues didn’t matter much to the Croatian audience of course, but then I had to go and see this on the net and start carping about it here, blowing her cover. Nice!

The musical score is modern and accomplished, with vocal writing that is not as hard to listen to as so many others are to my ears. While the music owes no debts to the music of The Beatles or John Lennon, the librettist slips in some direct lyrical lifts from Lennon compositions She Said She Said and My Mummy’s Dead as ironic counterpoints in addition to some nudge-and-wink lines that make allusions to many famous Beatle/Lennon solo numbers.

I would give high marks for the quality of musical composition. Josipović has a talent for wind scoring, and there are many fetching orchestral sequences like the “Mister Lennon” scene where winds and a small cyclone of harp and tuned percussion instruments accompany Dorotić as he stalks around the rotating grist mill-style platform stage center looking at the several dead versions of himself laying on the ground.

Have to note that there were a lot of body doubles for the murdered Lennon character in this thing. That’s some kinda theater credit, eh? “I was dead John Lennon #3 for the Croatian National Theatre Zagreb Chorus in ’22!” And if you didn’t get enough John Lennon doppelgängers among the dead cast members, they also provided a bumper crop of them among the living; the staging concept of this opera also includes outfitting the chorus and extras, to a member, in the same white Abbey Road suits with tinted granny glasses that the lead character wears for the length of the opera. You’d have to say that subtlety was not a priority for this production.

I admit coming to this work burdened with a considerable knowledge of the life and work of John Lennon. Without this background I might have found the whole thing more intriguing and kept my attentions pinned to the surrealist plot and myriad harmonic inventions of the composer. 

But alas, I know the subject pretty well from historical and musical perspectives, and from that I have to call out that there is nothing of the spirit of John Lennon in this opera. Nothing in form, content or the musical spirit of this opera conjures up anything of the character it’s based upon. The creators have a deep and almost obsessive knowledge of the life and work of Lennon, but are so consumed with the character’s mythology that the final product is incoherent to any viewer ignorant of its subject, while at the same time conjuring up not much of interest interesting about the man or his times.

So… ok. Lennon, the opera. A nicely-composed musical work wrapped around a goofball story of a post-assassination John Lennon interacting with his demons and angels in some scenarist’s cockeyed vision of popstar purgatory. Competent staging resources, some fine singers, and the entire apparatus of the Croatian National Theater were pressed into service to mount this production of decidedly basement theater-grade material.

In Lennon, the creators might have done better to reimagine this kind of thing more along the lines of the opera Harvey Milk – another opera about an assassinated icon presented as a non-linear meditation offering poignant drama while educating the audience about the protagonist in a way that doesn’t resort to excessive subjective projection.

I don’t think I’m alone in the basic idea that subjective fantasies about an iconic popstar taken from biography and artist interviews are don’t scale well to the operatic medium. The weak applause at the final curtain seemed to say that even the attendees for this premiere might agree with me. You may say I’m a dreamer… But I’m not the only one…