Facing Goya's intellectual skullduggery 

Heads Up

Suzanna Guzmán (left) plays the Art Banker in Facing Goya, by Michael Nyman (right)

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Suzanna Guzmán (left) plays the Art Banker in Facing Goya, by Michael Nyman (right)

Admittedly, when we read the blurb on Michael Nyman's opera Facing Goya, we were slightly confounded — Opera as thriller? — in a good "of course art should challenge us" way, but still. We sought out and listened to a recording of the four-act work but came away from it only slightly wiser on that one particular claim.

So we moved on to consider the plotline of Victoria Hardie's libretto. It's based on historical fact but quickly veers into speculative territory, taking its audience on a wild ride through time to explore fascist racial theories, cloning, the nature of genius, corporate greed, and the moral implications of scientific advances.

Facts first: Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya, a self-imposed political exile in France, died in Bordeaux and was buried there in 1828. After a time, Spain decided they wanted their genius back and in 1888 nipped over the Pyrenees to pick up his remains. When Spanish authorities opened Goya's burial vault, however, they discovered two bodies interred there. And no specific markers identifying the great painter. To spare themselves the embarrassment of inadvertently going home with the wrong goods, they headed back to Madrid with both of them.

Of course, 19th century forensic medicine was not exactly CSI. However, one burial had evidently taken place far more recently than the other and that one, they concluded, must be Goya. Inconveniently, that corpse lacked a head.

Rumors abounded. Goya's skull had been stolen or specifically harvested for scientific study. But Goya, it's said, didn't want his skull and brains appropriated by those he considered crack-pot scientists, the craniometrists of his day, who would have studied its dimensions and structure for clues to the painter's genius. So he specifically requested that his head be separated from the rest of his body on burial. The painter may have thwarted one group by doing so, but in Facing Goya the painter's final wishes get a run for their money.

Facing Goya takes these elements and gives us a time-travel story. We begin in the 19th century, with a search for that missing skull. We move forward to the eugenics experiments conducted by the Nazis in the '30s, and rejoin the 21st century with the study of gene manipulation and cloning. When Goya's head is eventually tracked down, it winds up in the hands of a bio-tech firm that has managed to clone his DNA, and produce a Goya look-alike sans the hoped-for genius.

With music that often runs counterpoint to the narrative being sung, the opera seeks to keep us firmly in our own heads. With projected images, evocative set designs, and minimal costuming, the production appeals to reason over emotions. The search for Goya's skull, the obsession with quantifying genius, and the urge to scientifically replicate that genius, drop us solidly in the domain of the technocrat. Nyman's music reflects this in what has been called a "collage-work."

It's not the first time Nyman has explored the topic of our grey matter and how we approach life through our minds. Facing Goya is Nyman's second opera after his success with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, based on the Oliver Sachs' book. It's the first work he's composed specifically for his group, the Michael Nyman Band.

Facing Goya's story is realized on stage by five singing performers and two actors with non-speaking roles. Of these, only the Art Banker is able to move across time. We caught up with the Art Banker herself, Suzanna Guzmán, for some insight into the work. Turns out, this is not her first Goya. She previously worked with Spoleto's own Gian Carlo Menotti on his opera Goya, an experience, she says, that dramatically changed her career. But almost by accident.

It began when she was approached about an opera Menotti was producing at the Washington National Opera. At the time, she was appearing in the company's production of Il trovatore. But there was a part in "this other opera" that hadn't been cast yet and rehearsals were only 10 days away. She'd have to be plucked out of Il trovatore and head straight into the other one. With no more details than that, she was asked, "Would you like to do it?" The other production turned out to be Goya.

Of course, the two Goya operas could not be more different: one very traditional and strictly biographical, this one minimalist and entirely taken up with ideas. Menotti's Goya was written with tenor Placido Domingo in mind and intended to highlight Domingo's mastery of traditional operatic forms. Even so, if for no other reason than shared subject matter, the two works bookend one another. We asked Guzmán if she felt there were connections between them.

"The same spirit," she said. "How is artistry made? Where does that spark of creativity arise? I have a line at the end of Facing Goya, 'Forgive me. I don't understand art, but I do love it.'" The Art Banker apologizes for trying to commercialize art, for having, we suppose, lost her soul. Guzmán goes on, "The magnitude of that takes your breath away. With our technology, with our social media, it's amazing to realize that there's still a portion of our spirits that is nurtured just by our own imagination and creativity."

We couldn't agree more. And even if our imaginations and creativity sometimes lead us to pursue notions away from our spirits, as Facing Goya seems to imply, we do not live entirely inside our skulls. Maybe that's what Nyman is really telling us.

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