Cambridge Opera Journal

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‘A face like music’: Shaping images into sound in The Second Mrs Kong


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Premièred at Glyndebourne in October 1994 and subsequently performed in the UK, Austria, Germany and Holland, The Second Mrs Kong was the result of a collaboration between the American writer Russell Hoban and British composer Harrison Birtwistle. The opera's reception has tended to emphasise the disparity between Hoban's diverse and eclectic interests, which emerge not only in the libretto but also in his novels and essays, and Birtwistle's more introspective and linear approach. Possible connections between Hoban's aesthetics and Birtwistle's music have generally been disregarded. I argue, however, that the opera's main aesthetic concerns – namely, the mediation of images through ideas and the workings of image-identification in diverse media – are shaped by a productive exchange between librettist and composer. The clearest expression of this interaction is the love between Kong, who embodies ‘the idea of’ King Kong from the 1933 RKO film, and Pearl, a character drawn from Vermeer's iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The representation of these visual icons in The Second Mrs Kong is inflected by Birtwistle's own views on images, by his attempts to find musical analogues for visual techniques, as revealed especially in his sketches, and by his lively engagement with Hoban's ideas.

(Published Online January 19 2007)