The disco dictator of the Philippines gets an opera

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The Independent Culture

When David Byrne teams up with Fatboy Slim to write an opera about Imelda Marcos and performs it at Carnegie Hall, New York's temple of high culture, there is perhaps only one possible response - gotta go.

Saturday night's world premiere of Here Lies Love - more of a narrative song cycle, perhaps, than a proper opera - was a sell-out as Byrne, the legendary co-founder of Talking Heads and experimental musician extraordinaire, chit-chatted about the eye-popping excesses of both Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos when they ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986.

The show, made up of 23 numbers, told the same story in musical as well as narrative form. "This is not artistic licence, this is reportage," Byrne told the audience.

The Marcoses, to him, were like Jack and Jackie Kennedy - glamorous, powerful, and irresistible. He was particularly intrigued by their lavish spending in the US, whose government was an unstinting ally from first to last.

"When I saw that she [Imelda] used to go to Studio 54 and she had a disco built in her New York townhouse and converted the roof of the Manila palace into a disco," he told a New York radio station on the eve of the concert, "I thought, here's a person in power who kind of comes with their own soundtrack."

Imelda's legendary shoe collection was not mentioned in the songs, because it was discovered after the Marcoses fled from power. But Byrne did talk about it on stage. "It wasn't just the shoes," he said, "there was a whole house of Heinz sandwich spread."

The Marcos opera was one of four nights of entertainment Byrne provided at Carnegie Hall, under the general heading Perspectives. Other nights have been devoted to experimental folk-rock music and music of different styles linked by a single note.

Since leaving Talking Heads in the late 1980s, Byrne has continued a thriving solo career, most notably tapping different world music sources as his inspiration, turned PowerPoint presentation into an art form and presented drawings of chairs.