in Articles

Andy Warhol in an opera focus

by Pekka Hako

“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.”

Flash Flash ‒ Two Holograms and An Intermission, a chamber opera created by composer Juhani Nuorvala and librettist Juha Siltanen, fulfils the requirements set by Andy Warhol for his art, as presented in the above quote. This Finnish opera is an unusual depiction of Warhol’s various existences, a portrait of a famous lonely man surrounded by the masses.

After a stumbling genesis of a dozen years, Flash Flash is finally coming to life at the Musica nova Helsinki festival on 9 February. Completed in 2005, the opera has been slated for performance in a number of productions over the years, each one of which failed for one reason or another. In spring 2009, concertgoers were treated to a taste of Flash Flash with a visualised concert performance of its middle act, ‘Intermission’, at the Musica nova Helsinki festival.

Though the two-hour Flash Flash has never before been staged, the work has already achieved a mythical status in Finland. It has been eagerly expected, the history of its non-performance has been closely scrutinised and followed. Yet this is entirely consistent with the subject of the work: Warhol himself seemed to look at his own life from the outside, until he finally came face to face with his own death.

“The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.” 

I visit composer Juhani Nuorvala at his studio. On the wall is a framed poster with thick black letters proclaiming an Andy Warhol quote: “I like boring things...” I ask him how the opera Flash Flash approaches the character of Warhol and how his art has been incorporated into the work.

Flash Flash is a work for music theatre. It uses elements of installations, multimedia art and conceptual art, in the spirit of the plays of Samuel Beckett. The opera is about a certain way of viewing reality.”

Warhol himself does not appear as a character in the opera. He is merely an observer.

“At one point in his life, Warhol in a strange way sort of switched off his emotional life and began to regard the world and his life as a show, without living his own life, so to speak. In the opera, this peeping Tom is not the main character on stage; he is the one watching. He comments on what he sees, and the audience hears his voice.”

Because the stage is almost empty during the two acts that frame the busy ‘Intermission’, the viewer cannot identify with a main character on stage in the traditional sense.

“Or so we choose to believe. The viewer, i.e. Andy Warhol, marvels at the opera auditorium and then discovers that he is in a room at a hospital in New York. Eventually, he is forced to encounter his feelings, his fears, his own death – the very things from which he had dissociated himself.”

He also encounters feelings of love that he had previously had.

“Oh yes. He feels a strong erotic attraction to a young tap-dancing man. Librettist Juha Siltanen and I have joked grimly that this is the first ever autoerotic-necrophile requiem with a happy ending.”

The decision to have the main character be a voiceover resembles the idea of a subjective camera: the audience follows the gaze of the main character.

“True enough. The audience is looking at the same image as the main character; he voices the audience’s thoughts. And the reverse is also true: we are forced to identify with the viewer who turns out to be Andy Warhol, to see with his eyes and hear with his ears.”

So we get to experience what it was like to be Andy Warhol.

“Exactly.”

“I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” 

Repetition was essential for the art and the life philosophy of Andy Warhol. What did he mean by that?

“When something shocking, like an image of an electric chair or a car accident, is repeated often enough, its meaning fades and the shocking content becomes just wallpaper. Draining emotional content through repetition was what Warhol employed to produce a ‘good and empty feeling’. I hope that operagoers might experience a relaxed and easy reception, as with Warhol’s art, when watching Flash Flash.”

But feeling good can be self-deception.

“At least until you’re on your death bed.”

“Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”

There is a lot of variation in your music, although your aesthetic is minimalist or post-minimalist. You use blocky surfaces but build a drama through contrasts and how they are paced.

“Tension can be built by varying the properties of a continuous surface. In the early 2000s, I began to use just intonation, which allows me to write tonal music and use triads in a way that is original and sounds fresh. There are a lot of bright colours in my music, just as in Warhol’s art – even unnaturally bright.”

Juhani Nuorvala abruptly gets up from his chair and walks to his desk. Using a computer and a keyboard, he demonstrates the microtonal tuning system he uses in the opera. The studio is filled with the colours of weirdly skewed tones.

“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.” 

What do we need the opera Flash Flash for?

“Gee, I don’t know.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Subheading quotes: Andy Warhol

Juhani Nuorvala ‒ Juha Siltanen: Flash Flash 

• Stage director Erik Söderblom  

• Performances at the Helsinki Music Centre (Musica nova Helsinki) on 9 and 10 February.

The performances at the Espoo City Theatre on 13, 14, 15 and 16 February, 2019 have been postponed due to a serious bout of flu which has made one of the singers lose his voice. The new dates are May 7-11, 2019.