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

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The Independent Culture

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."