DeFlip Side #105: Space Opera Red‘u’x


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Fall is upon us, and while most Science Fiction fans spend this time of year celebrating the return of their favorite genre TV shows, I get swept up in an entirely different kind of fannish frenzy—opera season!

I love it. I’m about to embark on my fourth year as a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and I can’t wait. So why am I telling you about this on a Science Fiction radio show?  Well the fantastic genre themes that we all love so much are more prominent in opera than you might think. Only I’ve never found an opportune way to explore those similarities here on DeFlip Side — until now. As it turns out, I’m not the only one eager to bridge these shared passions. But instead of looking to Shostakovich for inspiration, I should have been looking to Star Trek.

You’re hearing the world premiere performance of an opera called ‘u’ which is being touted as the first authentic Klingon opera on Earth. Yes, Klingon—composed in Klingon, sung in Klingon, and staged with a plethora of bumpy-headed performers wielding bat’leths and screaming with battle lust.

‘U’—which translates as “universe” or “universal”—debuted earlier this month at the Zeebelt Theater in The Hague, the brainchild of an outfit that calls itself the Klingon Terran Research Ensemble. The group’s artistic director, Floris Schönfeld says he got his hands on some fragments of a Klingon Battle Opera masterwork, from which he extrapolated the composition of ‘u’. The research ensemble even went so far as to recreate so-called “authentic” Klingon instruments to make the performance as genuine as possible. But despite these efforts, Schönfeld still fears he may not be getting it exactly right, concerns he expressed in this interview with NPR:

“We’re on the border a lot the time of making things up, simply because we don’t know. We don’t have the access and we can’t go to Qo’noS and hang out with the Imperial Opera. That’s just not an option right now. And we’re hoping, of course, for some grants to allow that.”

By now you’re either spitting with rage or laughing your head off, because we all know that Klingons aren’t real. And stunts like this usually drive me up a wall, making me angry to be associated with a fan community seemingly intent not only on keeping Science Fiction out of the mainstream, but making it actively laughable.

But in this case I have to give props to Schönfeld and the rest of the Klingon Terran Research Ensemble for playing it straight all the way, and presenting the opera as a grand experiment in xeno-cultural anthropology. The deadpan is especially effective when you consider that the sheer terribleness of Klingon Opera was a running joke on Next Gen and DS9.

Dreadful or not, the apparent sincerity of the Klingon Terran Research Ensemble’s approach caused others in the art world to take them seriously. Part of ‘u’ was created right here on Long Island at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons, a world-renowned performance laboratory.

Okay, you say, they may have fooled those arty types, but can this fake Klingon opera actually be any good?

Well, good is a matter of taste. But plausible? Without a doubt. I wasn’t kidding when I said that opera and SF&F have more in common than you might think. Opera is replete with gods, ghosts, mysticism and the supernatural. Centering as it does on Klingon mythology, the plot of ‘u’ is comparable to any number of operas—in fact it’s downright Wagnerian. Here’s a synopsis taken from the research ensemble’s website:

“The libretto of ‘u’ is based on the epos of Kahless the unforgettable. Betrayed by his brother and witness to his father’s brutal slaying, Kahless is pitted against his bitter enemy the mighty tyrant Molor. To regain his honor he must travel into the underworld, create the first Bat’leth, be united with his true love the lady Lukara and fight many epic battles. Through this awe inspiring adventure Kahless redefines what it is to be truly Klingon.”

I don’t see how that’s much different than stealing gold from a bunch of Rhinemaidens to pay off some giants to build Valhalla. Throw in a dragon and a couple of valkyries and you’re set. In my experience, as long as you’re carried along by the story it doesn’t really make any difference what language an opera is sung in, because you probably won’t understand it anyway. And no matter if it’s in Klingon or Chinese, the plot of ‘u’ fits comfortably within opera’s theatric and thematic conventions. But despite this, I doubt there will be audiences lining up at the Met to see it anytime soon.

So the research ensemble is appealing to a different crowd of opera buffs to come and see their show. Earlier this year, in a masterful theatrical flourish, they hired a radio telescope, pointed it at the Klingon home star Arcturus, and sent this invitation:

That’s Mark Okrand, the man famous in Trekdom for having created the Klingon language, and he’s urging any Klingons in the empire who might be listening to come to Earth and see the debut of ‘u’.

And so this grand piece of performance art continues, chalking up yet another creative first for Star Trek in the process—the first actual transmission to Qo’noS (never mind that it doesn’t really exist). It’s doubtful that Gene Roddenberry would have ever guessed that his Wagon Train to the Stars would continue to blaze such creatively esoteric trails—in the case of ‘u’ bringing literal meaning to the term space opera.