There’s French cheese and French cheesiness. Arena-rock musicals are like overripe camembert. And I fell under the pungent swoon of one not long after my arrival, a delicious travesty about the life of Mozart – Mozart as preening, tortured rock star.
Europeans, I discovered, have a liking for dramatic arena spectacles – musicals on a grand scale that are like a narrative derived from Eurovision Contest runners-up – and I wanted to see why they’re so popular. The European rock opera was far from what I was used to both in terms of musical theater and rock concerts. I didn’t know if I’d be able to understand the appeal, but I was determined to see for myself.
The posters for Mozart: l’Opéra Rock – in which a pouty cast poses like faded Fragonard swains via a German television approximation of New York’s East Village circa Rent – lined metro stations in the months just after my arrival. It was playing a return engagement at Stade de France, where it had run the year before. I convinced two of my friends from Alliance Française to accompany me – safety in numbers for a stadium-sized musical. Teenage girls and their parents made up 70% of the audience – a little older than that for a boy-band concert – and I could recognize one or two of the songs that I heard small groups of girls singing as they filed to their seats (I’d bought the “cast album” to acquaint myself with the score beforehand).
It’s a curious blend of biography and spectacle – short on biography, heavy on smoke and Adam Ant-style “new wave” costuming: leather pants, headbands and mascara. (The performers looked as period-inappropriate as you’d have expected.) All courtesy of Dove Attia and Albert Cohen, who’ve produced other successful (at least in terms of audience appeal) pop-music extravaganzas such as The Ten Commandments and The Sun King. Their newest concerns the legend of King Arthur (and it stars the same singer-actor whom I saw play Salieri).
This show’s Mozart, played by an Italian actor Mikelangelo Loconte, had the air of a louche 1980s rock star. This Mozart really, really, really wants to write opera. As he sets off with his mother looking for patronage, he meets and accompanies on the keyboard (or “keyboard” as it looked like from where we sat a hundred yards away) a beautiful singer, Aloysia Weber, who sees in Mozart her chance to break into the big time. Mozart, blinded by her beauty, wants to marry her, but his stern father Leopold denies his request.
As this opéra rock has it, Mozart’s career doesn’t go smoothly, and he’s as out of fashion in late 18th-century Europe as 1980s arena rock would be in the wake of Nirvana (but not in 21st-century France). As Mozart’s fame ebbs and flows, he also runs afoul of professional maneuvering. Yes, Salieri raises his jealous head here, too. We also glimpse the man in black who commissions Mozart’s celebrated Requiem and foretells the composer’s death. This Mozart seems to have spent his entire time pursuing love, pining for the wrong woman, dealing with a difficult father, looking for work and partying down – like a rock star. Oh, and writing a few masterpieces. Mozart: rebel with a cause.
Mozart: l’Opéra Rock used the broad outlines – very broad – of Mozart’s life to hammer home themes of unrequited love, thwarted fame, parental bonds and the curse of talent. You know, the usual. The girls around us – along with their parents – often sang along to the “tubes” or hits, of the score. The first song released from the show, “Tatoue-moi,” or tattoo me, was a big hit in France.
The songs were either wispy in the manner of Carla Bruni folk-pop or emotive in the manner of heart-on-sleeve arena ballads, with half-rhyming lyrics (“symphonie” with “cacophonie”). Of course, while you didn’t hear anything more than a snippet of Mozart – notably the opening bars here and there of the symphony #39 in G minor – the score was tuneful enough in its own way.
Mozart: l’Opéra Rock also featured the tacky but delirious spectacle of Fosse-style dancers with bare midriffs and contorting pelvises thrusting away geometrically amid a chorus of bewigged 18th-entry foppish types: jazz hands and minuets. And Mozart got to wail about life’s torments, while the women in his life did their part to go all American Idol on the audience, yearning for connection, etc., in voices loud enough to warn off intruders.
The show has been remarkably popular on a European opera-rock circuit that I hadn’t even known existed. One of the singer-actors, Florent Mothe, actually won a European musical award that year at Cannes for one of the songs from the show, “L’Assasymphonie.”
Despite my snobby self I found myself enjoying Mozart: l’Opéra Rock, as if it were a mindless summer action movie. And I realized how very different pop culture was here, especially this pop-culture favorite: unabashedly over the top, its mix of sincerity and cynicism managing to make you forget how awful it all was and how much you wanted to sing along with the other fans.