An indie rocker in virgin territory

Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen Orzolek loves to shock 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 Online

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 – just a drummer and guitarist supplement Karen O's spooky vocals, with no bassist to speak of – the switch from indie-rock to full-blown opera is a surprise. "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 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 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 decorated in clashing colour combos and festooned with tassels – have always had an air of the overblown about them. Indeed, her favourite catsuit designer, Christiane Hultquist, has made the costumes for Stop the Virgens.

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

According to Orzolek's New York publicist, there is talk of performing it in London. Orzolek jokes: "I would love nothing more than to bring this to Britain. Stop the Virgens is weak at the knees at the prospect of a British audience."