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Beyond the Great Divide

JC Niala

The Marriage of Kim K

The Marriage of Kim K
By Leo Mercer
Keble O’Reilly Theatre
2-5 March

Nearly two decades after Andreas Huyssen foreshadowed the death of any useful meaning to the division between “high” and “low” culture in his book After The Great Divide, creative works still stoke the fires of the debate. In Oxford, a current example of this is The Marriage of Kim K a piece of musical theatre by Leo Mercer that is being staged at the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble College.

On the surface it appears to be an intriguing paradox, a well-loved opera by Mozart adapted to feature an outrageous current celebrity. It could lead to the assumption that the dramatist Leo Mercer is deliberately provoking the world of opera that has been berated for its stuffiness and elitism. Indeed the poster for his piece is an artwork that blends a familiar image of Mozart with Kim K’s face.

However, it turns out that Mercer is building on a recent and growing movement that is subverting this increasingly questioned view of opera as exclusive. With their 2015/ 2016 “Opera Undressed Season” the English National Opera is one of a number of organisations actively seeking to make opera increasingly accessible. A 20 pound ticket buys an 89 pound seat, pre-production talks and information helpfully washed down with a complimentary gin and tonic and future discounts with the ENO to boot. With backing from musicians like Damon Albarn, it is seeking to increase the percentage of people under 44 who attend the opera from 30 – 40.

Even historically, so-called “high” culture did not always have superior beginnings. The Marriage of Figaro was in its inception as scandalous as some of Kim K’s photos. It was first written in 1778/9 by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais and challenged the class system during a tumultuous time in France. It was quickly banned by the French Court, and in Vienna where Mozart was working at the time. Mozart began what would continue to be a tradition of reworking the play and along with his librettist La Ponte was able to (by removing some of the most highly charged political aspects) get it past the censors and into the history books as one of the most successful operas ever written.

It could be argued that this was due to the fact that The Marriage of Figaro placed at its heart the play’s humanity and matters that transcend class, those of love marriage and laughter. It is these points that were the start for Mercer when he left a classical production of The Marriage of Figaro feeling that he had been treated to a long piece of music rather than something dramatic on the stage. It led him to create a piece of work where, true to the original, the action and music were so closely intertwined it was as important to see the opera as to hear it.

As artistic works are only defined as being “high” or “low” culture a posteriori, there has been a tendency for the designation of “high” culture to be skewed in favour of things that have been created in the past. Popular, particularly current popular culture, is therefore often seen as synonymous with “low” culture’. Yet what Mercer has done is to move beyond the divide and instead see the juxtaposition of the two as fertile ground on which to sow his imagination. He says, “… if you balance a love of the past with a love of popular culture, and see value in what most people see value in, you suddenly have a lot more material to make art with.”

Indeed music from The Marriage of Figaro is not uncommon in popular culture whether it is the duet Sull’aria in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption ,to the overture, which featured in The King’s Speech (2011).

Certainly it is the timeless themes of love and life coming together and falling apart that both Mozart and Mercer were attracted to and in turn hope to draw the audience into. Mercer hopes that the people who come to see his production will be surprised by the translation of The Marriage of Figaro both into English and through a lens that matches the frenetic pace of modern life.

Whether or not Mercer will bring together potentially disparate audiences, like the ENO has managed to, by piquing enough curiosity that even die-hard fans of Kim K or opera will find themselves sitting alongside each other to discover the magic that Mercer promises to weave is all that remains to be seen.

JC Niala is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College and is part of the production team of The Marriage of Kim K.