The Marriage of Kim K

C Venues, C (Venue 43) Until Aug 28 at 21:50
Box Office Adults £12.50 / Concessions £10.50

Mozart’s latest opera (with extensive additional musical material by Stephen Hyde, and libretto by Leo Mercer), The Marriage of Kim K, closed its week long run last night at the Arcola Theatre as part of “Grimeborn” Festival – but fear not, its next stop is the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August at C Venue. The opera tells three stories simultaneously, brought together creatively through the central protagonists, Amelia (Amelia Gabriel), and Stephen (Stephen Hyde); one of whom prefers to watch Keeping up with the Kardashians on TV while the other prefers Mozart.

The audience watches them as Amelia and Stephen watch Kim Kardashian (Yasemin Mireille) and Kris Humphries (James Edge), or Count Almaviva (Nathan Bellis) and his Countess (Emily Burnett). Fundamentally, we are watching three versions of notably similar accounts of domestic life told through a complex but ultimately satisfying musico-stylistic mashup between eighteenth century opera, pop/electronic music, and anything in between – think Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-9) with a greater number of musical genres from which to choose.

Hyde and Mercer are the latest collaborative duo to come out of Oxford University having met up for coffee to “have a chat about stuff” and “see if any possible collaborations emerge”. Well, meet and collaborate they did and almost three years later, they’re taking this intriguing opera to the Fringe. After what one can only assume (having not seen it) was a sort of dry-run in Oxford, they have brought in a group of young professionals – all four of whom demonstrate their professional training throughout in different ways – to bolster the central duo of Stephen and Amelia. As perhaps could be expected, Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett shone vocally, traversing some rather complex ensemble writing with aplomb.

Ironically, the most fizzling chemistry of the evening was to be found in Yasemin’s “Kim”, and James’ “Kris”, despite their ultimate divorce. Having not seen Keeping up with the Kardashians (to my shame), I’d like to think that Yasemin’s and James’ on-stage comedic value is at least a match for their real-life counterparts’. The titbit of trivia in the programme was that the main couple – Stephen and Amelia – were together both on-stage and off. This may go some way in explaining the ease with which their intimacy was achieved, but conversely, also explains their less convincing confrontation. What remains laudable however, was what the opera achieved more broadly.

Popularising opera, or to use its buzzword in the industry, making it more “accessible”, has been high on the agenda of opera companies and festivals for a number of years. Generally speaking, they can be divided into two categories: the first treats traditional opera in a new way by re-contextualising original operas and updating them for modern audiences. Often this involves a transposition of the production to reflect current times; the most notable current example (even if not an opera), could be Delacorte Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar in New York – complete with a blonde tyrant and Eastern European wife. The second, seeks to create opera with a plot designed to appeal to a modern audience, for example, Thomas Ades’ Powder her Face (1995), or last week’s world premiere of the Steve Jobs biopic The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Interestingly, The Marriage of Kim K does neither, or both – depending on your point of view.

Yes, it certainly has a whiff of re-contextualised Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) about it; the sheer number of melodic references to the work’s most famous arias makes this impossible not to notice. However, it is by no means confined or defined by it. By the same token, what could be more with the times than writing an opera based on reality television superstar, Kim Kardashian? The Marriage of Kim K’s synthesis of old and new, “high” and “low”, even “kitsch” and learned”, manages to give depth to an (arguably) otherwise vacuous celebrity, and also minimises the temporal aristocratic divide so difficult to avoid when performing any of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas.

By bringing the forms closer together, the work highlights more than anything, the intransience of entertainment over the last 250 years. We seem to be inherently curious and nosey about other people’s lives. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a depiction of the aristocracy on stage, or the daily lives of the Kardashians on television, our capacity for consuming other’s lives has not diminished.

Whilst I would be hesitant to call this an opera, not because it is undeserving of the title, but because it undersells the wideness of its appeal, it certainly falls toward the operatic end of the musical scale. Its musical complexity never over indulges and always lends you a pop-song lifeline, a momentary recognition and feeling of being “in-the-know” when you need it. As I walked out, I couldn’t help thinking that there are some absolutely god-awful attempts to introduce opera to a wider audience, however, The Marriage of Kim K seems to achieve what so few do: its own voice. Nor does it patronise the audience by screaming its relevance, but rather leaves that up to people to discover for themselves.

The programme contained a rather tongue in cheek timeline of further Da Ponte/Mozart/Mercer/Hyde collaborations culminating in Caitlyn Jenner’s Cosi Fan Tutti at the Royal Opera House in 2021, and Don Kanye opening at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2022. Well, let’s see how things go, but I think they could do far worse.