A Kurt Cobain Opera Examines the Myth, Not the Man

LONDON — Onstage at the Royal Opera House here last Friday, the actor Agathe Rousselle pulled a huge, furry green coat over her head as four singers swarmed around her, demanding money and favors.

Rousselle was rehearsing “Last Days,” a new opera in which she plays out the final hours in the life of Blake, a rock star reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the grunge band Nirvana who died by suicide in 1994. Rousselle was also wearing the style of vintage white sunglasses Cobain made famous.

As Rousselle hid under the coat, the stage manager appeared, carrying a shotgun. That prop remains onstage throughout the opera, reminding the audience of the forthcoming tragedy and the potential cost of fame.

“Last Days,” which premieres on Friday, is one of the most eagerly anticipated new operas in Britain this fall, having long sold out a four-night run. It’s also one of the more unusual, being based on Gus Van Sant’s largely wordless and plot-free 2005 movie “Last Days,” in which a Cobain-like character roams around a country house falling asleep, listening to music and trying to avoid his housemates, manager, a Yellow Pages salesman and two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With a libretto written by the artist Matt Copson and the experimental composer Oliver Leith, both first-time opera makers, the show has Rousselle largely mumbling, rather than singing. Her mumbles are then translated for the audience using supertitles.

Most of “Last Days” is set in a dilapidated house, with set design by Grace Smart.Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Choosing a grunge star as the show’s central character may surprise some opera traditionalists, and it could also prove divisive to Nirvana fans. Charles R. Cross, a journalist who wrote a biography of Kurt Cobain, said in a telephone interview that he hated the movie “Last Days,” because it portrayed Cobain as a “depressed, lifeless waif” unable to act for himself. “That was absolutely not who Kurt Cobain was,” Cross said, adding that an opera is likely to further exaggerate that portrait.

Despite the opera’s central character being named Blake, “the only reason people are going to see this is because of Kurt Cobain’s celebrity,” Cross said.

During a break in rehearsals, Copson, who is co-directing the opera with Anna Morrissey, said he thought such critiques misunderstood his show. The opera was not trying to give a take on Cobain’s life or any answers as to what happened to him, he said, but pose questions like, “What do we as Western culture want from our symbols?”

Cobain was an “archetype” of pop stars who rebel against society, he said, then find their music and style co-opted by mainstream culture, and struggle to cope with the contradictions. “Every few years, we get another,” Copson said, mentioning the rappers Lil Peep, who died in 2017, and Juice WRLD, who died in 2019. Society fetishizes figures who live close to the edge, Copson added. “What do we want by these people?” he asked. “Do we need something to sacrifice every once in a while?”

The idea for making “Last Days” also had little to do with Cobain as a person, said Leith, the Royal Opera House’s composer-in-residence. Leith had wanted to make his first opera, and after meeting Copson, the pair talked about how they both loved finding “mystery and magic” in everyday objects, Leith remembered. “Last Days” became a reference point in those conversations because all Blake’s actions, no matter how mundane, seemed profound given his impending suicide. Even when he eats a bowl of cereal, Copson said, it “feels potent.”

In making his first opera, the artist Matt Copson said he felt like an outsider “hijacking an institution.”Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

The pair threw around ideas for potential operas that could capture the movie’s mood until Leith suggested simply adapting it. The idea of making an opera with a lead who mumbles was “a slightly worrying prospect,” Leith said. But he and Copson quickly started enjoying how it allowed them to play with opera traditions. Copson said he felt like an outsider “hijacking an institution.”

At the recent rehearsal, the pair’s love of incorporating the mundane was pronounced. One performer, playing a delivery driver trying to get Blake to accept a parcel, repeatedly sang the line, “I just need a signature, please sir.” Later, Rousselle poured herself a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal, and the sounds of pieces hitting the china bowl became a rhythm bouncing around the auditorium.

Most of the performance was set in a dilapidated house, a stark contrast to the glamorous if grunge-influenced outfits designed by Balenciaga. Copson admitted Cobain would probably not have liked being associated with such an expensive fashion house.

Of those involved in the opera, only Rousselle was a Nirvana superfan, Copson said. The actor, who is best known for starring in the horror movie “Titane” as a woman sexually attracted to cars, said that she first heard the band’s music as a teenager growing up in France. She was bullied at school and one day one of the school’s popular girls threw a CD of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” at her, sneering, “That’s the kind of thing you weirdo would listen to,” Rousselle recalled. When she got home, she immediately played it. “I lost my mind to it,” she said.

A few years later, Rousselle became obsessed with “Last Days,” too, and so instantly signed up to perform in the opera despite never having attended one herself (last month, Copson and Leith took her to see a performance of Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” which she hated. “It’s not my thing,” she said).

To prepare for the role, Rousselle said she watched every Nirvana documentary and interview she could find, but still said the opera was not about Cobain, but bigger issues like how “becoming a myth will kill you” and “the absurdity of being famous and wanting to disappear when you’re recognizable to pretty much everyone.” The opera could have been made about Amy Winehouse or Janis Joplin and still made the same points, she added.

As a bullied teenager growing up in France, Agathe Rousselle became a Nirvana superfan.Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

At the recent rehearsal, there was more than one moment when Rousselle’s Blake became more than a one-dimensional “archetype” of a doomed musician. Toward the end, Rousselle found herself onstage alone, and sat down by an electric guitar. She turned on an amp and started strumming the distorted chords of a grunge track — the only time such music is heard in the opera.

“I never want to see the sun set,” she sang, plaintively. “I’ve never loved life so much.” As she sang to herself, the soprano Patricia Auchterlonie, playing a Blake superfan and dressed just like her, crept across the stage, singing the same words in soaring Italian.

As their voices and musical styles mixed, the cast and crew in the auditorium stood in rapt silence.

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