MUSIC / Birtwistle goes ape: What drew Harrison Birtwistle to pay homage to Hollywood - the power of modern archetypes, or the lure of kitsch? Mark Pappenheim introduces The Second Mrs Kong

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The Independent Culture
You may well feel you've been here before. But, then, with Harrison Birtwistle, that's half the point. His work is full of recurrent themes - time, the seasons, journeys, death, Orpheus and Eurydice, the Green Man - continually reworked from fresh angles. And the music itself obsessively stalks its subjects, circling around, revealing them from ever changing perspectives, and on shifting timescales.

It's much the same with Russell Hoban. He's long tried to work out his obsessions with Orpheus and Eurydice, King Kong and Fay Wray, Vermeer and his Girl with the Pearl Earring. Back in the mid-Eighties, he attempted various trial solutions to his problem in the essay Certain Obsessions, Certain Ideas. With no success. 'And still I hunger for a story to tell, a story about Orpheus and Eurydice, a story about any man and woman . . .

about frustrated lovers . . . Sometimes the writing ends up as a novel, sometimes not.'

Almost 10 years on, the solution has finally emerged: not a novel, but an opera; not just any pair of frustrated lovers, but one dead and one living; and not just any man and woman, but Pearl, the girl in the Vermeer, and Kong, the ape in the movie. Or, rather, not Kong, but merely 'the idea of him', for, as Hoban says, there never was a 50ft gorilla called Kong - only a giant head and shoulders, a giant hand and foot and an 18in puppet on a Hollywood lot. So it's an impossible love, this, between 'a King that never was, a Kong that never was' and a face from a 17th-century painting. It's also something of an Orpheus in reverse - with the dead (or rather undead) Kong in hot pursuit of the living Pearl - and a chance for Birtwistle to have his fourth go at reworking the old legend in 24 years.

Only this time, alongside those old operatic stalwarts Orpheus and Eurydice, the cast list for The Second Mrs Kong boasts not just Pearl and her King, but Vermeer, Paganini (more heard than seen), Anubis (the jackal-headed god of the Egyptian underworld), the Sphinx, a Monstrous Messenger, a singing Mirror and a comic 1930s Hollywood trio - Mr Dollarama, a dead film producer, his wife Inanna, an ex-beauty queen (with a name borrowed from a Sumerian goddess), and her lover, Swami Zumzum, a phony guru.

For Tom Cairns, who directs and designs the Glyndebourne premiere, this ragbag mix of Greek and Egyptian mythology, 17th-century Flemish art, old Hollywood movies and modern information technology echoes the plays of Botho Strauss - 'where great myths and great archetypes are used in the most ordinary situations. I like that. I like the idea of mixing Orpheus and having a cup of coffee - making those things ordinary, so they become then extraordinary.' And, as Cairns admits, the opera, particularly that Hollywood threesome, happily treads the thin line that divides archetypes and cliches: 'Oh, there are lots of those, some of them are modern cliches and some of them are ancient, mythological ones.'

In short, Birtwistle, the reluctant champion of Modernism, has gone Po-Mo.

Not only that, he's gone comic - but then, he always has had a streak of black humour: the whole vast Wagnerian apparatus of Gawain did, after all, grow from a wish to put a pantomime horse on the Covent Garden stage. At Glyndebourne, Birtwistle's 50- piece band - including bass trombones, euphonium, cimbalom, guitar, saxes and accordion - shares house room not only with chunks of Max Steiner's original 1933 film score (and brief extracts from Brief Encounter and Night Mail), but also bits of fake TV, a snatch of adult porn, and a full pop promo video for 'Pearl, Pearl, the Vermeer Girl'.

The video is by John Maybury. Despite his work with Derek Jarman - on Last of England and War Requiem - it was his track record with the likes of Boy George, Erasure, and the Thompson Twins that got him the job. So the idea of turning a Vermeer into a pop video was, he says, 'right up my alley - to see just how lurid and ugly it could be'. He's also enjoyed the ironies of the project. As he says: 'To ask the guy who made the Neneh Cherry video to work with Sir Harrison Birtwistle - there's a nice little game being played by somebody somewhere.'

'The Second Mrs Kong' opens at Glyndebourne (0273 813813) on Monday (Photograph omitted)

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