Review of The Monster Opera on Colorado Drama.com

The Monster Opera

by Bob Bows

Every year at this time, we conjure monsters of all sorts to give ourselves a good fright and an excuse to indulge ourselves in gobs of refined sugar—which often turn out to be the same thing—but rarely does anyone give these ghoulish spirits their proper dramatic due.

Erik Wilkins as Libretto Santiago and Nancy Stohlman as Ursula Leonard
Erik Wilkins as Libretto Santiago
and Nancy Stohlman as Ursula Leonard

So, what better way to exalt our resident monsters than to present them in operatic form, as is so melodramatically accomplished in this delightful mashup, with book by Nancy Stohlman and score by Nick Busheff.

Composer Nick Busheff
Composer Nick Busheff

In search of a scary plot for their next opera, Ursula Leonard (Stohlman), with the assent of her husband Hugo (Toby Smith), agree that she should go to Mexico City, where she discovers the hidden dark secret of Libretto (Erik Wilkins) and Magdelena Santiago (Marta Burton), once renowned opera singers.As the story grows inside of Ursula, so do the repercussions of the Santiagos’ sinister doings, until we arrive at a suitably horrific dilemma.

Marta Burton as Magdelena Santiago and Jonathan Montgomery as The Critic
Marta Burton as Magdelena Santiago
and Jonathan Montgomery as The Critic

Stohlman’s narrative and dialogue deftly dances away from pinpointing the source and nature of the evil running through the story, leaving that to our imaginations. Busheff’s score is a masterwork of haunting tunes and unnerving atmospherics that amplify the unfolding horrors. Wilkins’ and Burton’s operatic riffs are compelling and, in Burton’s case, intentionally hilarious.The Monster Opera will return next Halloween.

Bob Bows

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The Monster Opera this Friday!

 

In The Monster Opera, a writer travels to Mexico City in search of a new story, but the monsters are already waiting for her. The more she writes, the more their whereabouts, as well as their desperation, are revealed. The result is a gothic literary noir, a genre-bending novel-meets-libretto that combines recitative with dialogue, aria with prose, and ultimately asks the question: Who owns a story?

The Monster Opera started as a “flash novel,” a phrase coined by its writer, Nancy Stohlman, then mutated into a postmodern, compressed extravaganza that has grown into a hearty full-length production under the command of Stohlman and composer Nick Busheff. Originally staged as part of the book’s release in 2013, The Monster Opera is back for one night only, with the original cast, at the Mercury Cafe.

“It’s about a writer who steals stories,” explains Stohlman. “She steals the wrong story in search of a new story from these opera singers, and she’s telling their story and they’re trying to get it back. And they’ve been in hiding, and as she’s writing their story, she’s revealing them…. It’s about who owns the story.”

The presentation takes place at 7:30 p.m. October 30 at the Mercury, 2199 California Street. For tickets, $12 to $15, and information, visit nancystohlman.com/monsteropera.

Nancy Stohlman on flash novels and The Monster Opera, debuting as an opera Friday

By Alex Brown Wed., Oct. 2 2013 at 9:00 AM
Publishing in The Westword. Read original here.
Nancy.jpg
From Nancy Stohlman

Nancy Stohlman can do it all. She can create new genres of literature, write operas and teach you how to do both. Someday she hopes to become a pirate, but in the meantime her new flash novel The Monster Opera will be transformed into an opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe. In the novel, a writer travels to Mexico to find inspiration to write — but there are monsters everywhere waiting for her. It turns into a “gothic literary noir, a genre-bending novel-meets-libretto that combines recitative with dialogue, aria with prose, and ultimately asks the question: Who owns a story?,” explains Stohlman. In advance of the opera’s debut, we talked with her about being a revolutionary in her craft, some childhood memories and finding the confidence to produce authentic work.

See also: Kinky Mink Loves the ’80s

Westword: I noticed you say you coined the term “flash novel.” Can you explain what a flash novel entails, and how you came up with it?

Nancy Stohlman: I first coined the term in 2008 for my master’s thesis at Naropa University. At that time I’d already written three traditional novels, but my new work was hijacking me — it was trying to escape the constraints of a traditional novel. None of the terminology, including “novel” or “novella,” really described what I was trying to write: a sparse, lean book that behaves and resonates as if it were much longer with the scope of a novel.

When our art begins to change, our language needs to change, too. So I basically invented the term as a way to give my work permission to misbehave and to give legitimacy to a new type of storytelling.

Are there other flash novelists, or are you the sole front of the movement? Did you feel like a revolutionary when you put the term on the cover of your first book, Searching for Suzi?

I absolutely felt like a revolutionary! I remember the conversation with Searching for Suzi publisher Nate Jordan. I said, “When people start tracing the term, I want them to trace it all the way back to here.” So we put it on the cover. It was awesome.

But in terms of being the sole flash novelist, no. There are many writers whose work has also been pushing these same boundaries; their work is being labeled anything from a novel to a novella to a collection. So many amazing new works defy the old definitions; if the writers are like me, then you finish and you sort of look at it and say, well, great. Where will Barnes and Noble shelve this? Miscellaneous?

But I’m excited that the term “flash novel” is starting to catch on. Writer magazine featured an article about the flash novel, “All Meat and No Fat,” in 2010, and Bartleby Snopes Press, which published The Monster Opera, has even begun a flash novel series.

The Monster Opera took a few years to complete and get staged, and you said you thought it was just “too weird.” How did you finally overcome that barrier and realize its true potential?

In this case, it wasn’t about me overcoming, it was about me waiting. I believe the job of any artist is to point audiences into thickets that may at first seem intimidating. Which means that naturally, at first, there will be resistance. In fact, if there isn’t at least a little resistance, than perhaps there isn’t enough at stake. I like my art raw, vulnerable, 100 percent true to the authenticity of the vision. So rather than try to make my work more widely accessible to speed up the process, I just had to wait.

Funny story: The same morning I got the acceptance from Bartleby Snopes, I was in the process of abandoning The Monster Opera. I had decided that it was too weird for public consumption and I should move on. Within hours of “letting it go,” I opened my e-mail to find an acceptance.

I heard Gertrude Stein was a real inspiration for you. Do you feel that reading her Four Saints in Three Acts gave you permission, or made it easier, to produce The Monster Opera?

If I hadn’t, quite by accident, discovered Gertrude Stein’s libretto on one of my adventures through the Denver library stacks, I probably would never have written this book. It was one of those aha! moments when smoke clears and little birdies start singing: All at once it became possible in my mind for an opera libretto to become a piece of literature. Certainly there have been works of literature that have been turned into opera. But I wanted to go the other way around — I wanted to write a libretto that behaved like literature. I wrote The Monster Opera as a book before any music was put to it.

You’re also involved in hosting many writers workshops; what do you have coming up for those? Does helping others with their writing help your own writing?

Absolutely. Over the summer I taught an intensive workshop for writers to finish their manuscripts and take the next steps launching them into the world. (I’ll probably give that one again in January.) I’m currently working with several private clients and I’ve just started individualized coaching sessions focused on book launching and self-promotion. The best part about working with other writers, especially other talented writers, is you will always be learning from the process; it’s especially wonderful to bear witness to another writer’s breakthrough, then turn back to your own work with your own breakthroughs simmering…

Nick Busheff composed the music for The Monster Opera. You work with him in your metal/ lounge band Kinky Mink. Did it help to use someone whose musical styling’s you were so familiar with? Were you two really on the same page with this project?

Nick Busheff is a brilliant musician and composer, and this production would never have happened without him. And yes, there is absolutely something magical that happens in a collaboration between artists who are really in tune with one another’s vision. I’ve done lots of successful collaborations, but it’s rare to find another artist who can hear the music in your head before you’ve even heard it yourself. I believe this is Nick’s finest work to date.

With this project finished, how close are you now to your dream of becoming a pirate?

I’m always practicing my looting and pillaging skills. I actually just stole your wallet. Why do you still have a Blockbuster card?

You said when you were nine you wrote a screenplay called Superman: The Musical. Any chance of adapting that into a flash piece for the stage? Sounds really fun.

Ha! I think the Lex Luthor/Lois Lane duet will have to be rethought. Gosh, that was really when I became a writer, I think. I remember typing it day after day on my mother’s electric typewriter, loving the sound of the keys hitting and how important I felt sitting there, creating something where there was nothing before. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the paper mache volcano…

Anything else you would like to add for the readers out there? Promotions/shout- outs?

Definitely shout-outs to my awesome cast: Marta Burton, Erik Wilkins, Jonathan Montgomery, Dee Galloway, Toby Smith, Scott Ryplewski, Mayra Walters, Van Yoho and Kinky Mink drummer Rory Reagan. And a huge thank you to Marilyn Megenity at the Mercury Café for being a rock of support, not only to me but to the artistic community in Denver for so many years.

Stohlman will debutingThe Monster Opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street; the show starts at 8 p.m. and Stohlman will have a book-signing after the show. Tickets are available here.

“The Monster Opera” reviewed by Savage Reviews

-Reviewed by Ian Chung-

Following on their first flash novel, Matthew Ankeny’s The Rink, Bartleby Snopes Press is releasing a second title in the series, Nancy Stohlman’s The Monster Opera, ‘a flash novel in two acts’. Structurally, Stohlman’s work mixes operatic libretto and sheet music with production reviews, wrapped up within a self-reflexive narrative that centres on a forbidden story. Or as the writer character of Ursula Leonard announces in the ‘Overture’, regarding The Monster Opera, ‘I hate this story. I hate the Muse. […] Now it’s a bastard deformity. Not an opera, not a novel. I wish I’d never written the first word. I had no idea what kind of monster I was growing.’

Monster Book Cover Draft (2)-page-0The first act of this flash novel thus consists mainly of the interactions between Ursula and the opera singers that she has come to stay with, tenor Libretto Santiago and soprano Magdalena Santiago (née Basco), as Ursula is seduced into writing their story. Libretto demands Ursula’s loyalty in exchange for giving her the story, offering her a final chance to ‘leave this place, leave [his] bed, leave this house and find [her]self another’. Right after she agrees to pay the price, the narrative interrupts to warn Libretto:

This is the final moment before the story changes hands, the moment your ego has done you in. You’re too infatuated to think straight, you find the prospect of becoming a character romantic and appealing, you want to be immortalized in words, you want to feel that your story is worth taking. Later, when it’s too late, you’ll forget that you gave it willingly. I warned you.

The story in question is akin to a living organism, casting its pall on the Santiago household, or as Ursula writes, ‘The whole family suffered from sad sickness.’ It is literally transmitted from Libretto to Ursula through a bite, continuing to gestate inside her: ‘The Forbidden Story grew inside of me. My breasts were stretched and sore. […] The story was growing stronger; it was swelling, transforming.’ It gradually becomes clear that what is being transmitted is really a poisoned chalice, in that it confers preternatural talent on those it infects, since Libretto received it from his father and went on to become the world’s greatest tenor, but ‘he [also] felt the monster stir’ inside him. In the case of Ursula, she writes, ‘The monster lives in me, wants to escape, wants to take over my body and mind.’

The final piece of the puzzle slides into place at the end of the flash novel’s first act, with the appearance of The Traitor, who also demands the deadly gift from Libretto. It is quickly revealed that The Traitor is in fact Ursula’s husband, Hugo, seemingly written into existence in the role by the Forbidden Story’s manipulation of Ursula (‘It’s growing on its own now’). In its second act, The Monster Opera shifts into a more surreal mode, as the walls between fiction and reality begin to break down, and the Forbidden Story writes itself towards a gruesome end for all involved: ‘The poet writhes and expels the story she is not allowed to write […] rotted, bloated chunks of paper that leave a strong odor.’

What is most fascinating about Stohlman’s work is how freely it shifts back and forth between different artistic forms, the whole package compressed into the length of a short story. Given its usage of sheet music, it would have been interesting to see an e-book produced that incorporated performances of those songs, in a similar fashion to what happens in Superbard’s The Flood. However, while Stohlman herself has acknowledged the potential of The Monster Opera as a performance piece, having done a staged reading with composer Nick Busheff and a small cast, she also sees it first and foremost as a written work. In that respect, The Monster Opera is a bold attempt to carve out a space for the flash novel as a distinct category within the fiction landscape. In doing so, the work also raises questions about how art forms like opera can sustain an existence today, as well as the sacrifices demanded of those involved in the act of creating art.

Read original review here

Purchase The Monster Opera on Lulu