Meet Karen O's new band: forty operatic virgins

Karen Orzolek, frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has made a career out of shocking people. Now she's introducing sex, drugs and rock'n'roll to the opera world, she tells Chris Beanland

An ambitious indie opera created by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has been the talk of New York's hipster crowd – and it could be coming to Britain if its creator has her way. Stop the Virgens features bizarre set-pieces about love and death, elaborate costumes, over-the-top music, and virgins vomiting blood during a head-spinning finale. At its heart lies an exploration of female sexuality which will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the singer's lyrics for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Karen Orzolek – better known by her stage-name Karen O – has written Stop the Virgens and sings in the opera, as well as taking on narration duties. The 32-year-old vocalist assembled a crack team of collaborators who helped her to make the show one of the hottest tickets in town when it hit the stage at Brooklyn's St Ann's Warehouse last month for a limited run.

Given the taut minimalism of much of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' canon during the last decade – the band famously operates with just a drummer and guitarist supplementing Karen O's spooky vocals – no bassist to speak of – it is surprising that the New Yorkers would switch from indie-rock to full blown opera. "It is similar to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in respect of the music being at the centre of it all," Orzolek tells me. "But, as a production, this is the most ambitious I've ever got. There were just under 100 people working on this." So what inspired the change?

"I had the music and it called out to be something more than a rock record", Orzolek explains. "For years it was sitting around and inevitably an original live production felt like the best fit. I also wanted to do this because there wasn't anything else like it out there, a musical event of this sort." For those who've seen the trio's theatrical live shows, the move starts to make more sense. Orzolek's soaring vocals – especially on ambitious mid-career tracks like the heartbreak ballad "Maps" – and her expressive dancing all hinted at a desire to put on a proper show. So too did stage props like the giant eyeball which stared out at audiences on the band's British tour in 2009.And Orzolek's costumes – catsuits and playsuits decorated in improbable clashing colour combos and festooned with tassels – have always had an air of the overblown about them. Indeed, her favourite catsuit designer, Christiane Hultquist (known widely by her pseudonym Christian Joy) has made the costumes for Stop the Virgens.

Orzolek has dubbed Stop the Virgens a "psycho opera" and the finale, in which the cast of waif-like virgins writhes around vomiting blood, fits that description. But this is also a very indie opera. While Orzolek has written the words and music, Nick Zinner, guitarist in the band, acts as co-musical director and also plays guitar. Brian Chase, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' drummer plays live percussion in the opera. Long time Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark plays keyboards on stage, and Patrick Keeler of The Raconteurs takes bass duties. But there are also nods to the traditional world of opera – the band features viola and cello too. And, of course, there is a choir.

Why opera? "Because it's more expressionistic," says Orzolek. "This project has been so abstract as a process. It's been difficult to classify it but the stakes are high and the emotion runs deep and the presentation feels, to me, operatic."

It may only have run over eight nights in Brooklyn, but Stop the Virgens has been a seven-year labour of love for Orzolek. She has been helped along the way by Adam Rapp, on directing duties. Rapp, a playwright and theatre director, has previously written and directed on the acclaimed HBO television show In Treatment, and made the 2005 indie movie Winter Passing, which starred Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell. Rapp and Orzolek went to see British theatre company Punchdrunk's production Sleep No More together in New York and it was Punchdrunk's in-your-face aesthetic which inspired the gutsy feel of Stop the Virgens.

Another member of Orzolek's so-called "glam team" of helpers is KK Barrett, a former member of US punk band The Screamers, who acted as production designer on the show and helped Orzolek out with the narrative arc of the piece.

Orzolek may have worked with a number of men on Stop the Virgens, but the end result is a very female-focused piece of work. Her output has always had feminist tinges and those same brushstrokes can be seen in the finished opera. The plot sees a group of virgins slowly mature and discover their innate sexual power – all the while musing on the power of sex in the life of women. A gruesome end eventually befalls the stricken group after they eat poisoned gumballs.

Orzolek's lyrics question male responses to the "virgens" and posit how men are often a let-down in life: "The way you spread your love is just wasteful / Can't put my finger on it just to make it tasteful." The choir is made up entirely of women – 40 of them in total.

So will Karen and her 40 virgins make it over to these shores? According to Orzolek's New York publicist, there are talks of performing it in London. Orzolek jokes: "I would love nothing more than to bring this to Britain. I'm dying to bring it to Britain. Stop the Virgens is weak at the knees at the prospect of a British audience."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum