The Birth of Vina
A found libretto with autobiographical notes, signed "Kurt Keppler"
My mother was a teen when she had me, and I know nothing of my father. She gave me up for adoption when I was barely one, so I have no real recollection of her.
I was adopted and raised by a couple in a suburban town in eastern Colorado. He was an insurance adjuster and she was a librarian on long-term disability leave for lupus.
My step-father was gone a lot and and my stepmom was around constantly, so I definitely was more attached to her. She overdid the affection thing and I had too much stuff. Conversely my stepdad and I fought non-stop.
I started running away when I was 13, but usually I would be back in time for dessert. Only once did I last the night, over at a friend’s house, on the sofa. I ran away a couple times a year at least until I moved out for good to go to college at Colorado State University, which was in the next town over, Ft Collins.
I decided to major in Veterinary Science. The school was well-known for this. I’d really loved animals since I was little, I had almost a menagerie in my room: Turtles, parakeets, a boa constrictor, hamsters, a cat, you name it, and a St Bernard we kept in the yard.
But it turns out I was horrible at the science requirements, failed calculus twice, so I switched to the theater department. Mainly because there was this guy there I had a crush on, who ended up hating my guts. Oh did I mention I’m gay?
So I actually thrived in the theater department. But the truth is I was a pretty bad actor. Bad might not be the proper word. Watching me act was like taking a belt sander to a stick of butter.
But I excelled at designing sets. I was really good. I loved to find the perfect materials and the perfect treatment for the emotional content of whatever was being portrayed. They called me the Prince of Papier Mache, because I was obsessed with making these gigantic set pieces out of chicken wire and papier mache. I guess I was really an artist at heart, but the school had an almost non-existent art department, so this was the next best thing.
And then I met Helen. She was a music major and quite lovely, and we became fast friends. People thought we were going out but it wasn’t like that at all. She was my muse and my teacher. She was positively the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met. She and I shared a mutual sense of alienation from the world and would hole up in her little apartment, sharing things. I would show her my paintings, these abstract, weird paintings. I was very influenced by the German Expressionists. She taught me so much about music, it was like going to graduate school. She played the flute and was into modernist music, the hardcore atonalists, like Schoenberg and Berg. She would play me this stuff that blew my mind.
Naturally we began collaborating on these little productions. The first we put on in the cafeteria in the student union. It was about a tiny planet that wanders by accident into our solar system and is completely shunned by all the other planets. He can’t stop talking to them, singing to them actually, and the other planets conspire against him and crush him into oblivion. I really liked the nihilistic themes.You can almost imagine it. All the actors were wearing these giant papier mache globe costumes and singing the music of the spheres, until the rogue planet shows up and starts singing this music with no tonal center at all!. The ombudsman ended up shutting us down before the third act even began.
Flash forward to New York, 1983. Don’t ask me how I got there, long story. But Helen and I had been planning on moving to the big city for many years. We would dream and scheme, preparing for our chance.
Helen never made it to New York. One week before our planned departure she fell off of the roof three story apartment building during a party. I was destroyed emotionally, but was determined to continue with our dream.
New York was tough. It was 1983, the height of the recession. I spent months trying to find work as a set decorator, but I hadn’t counted on how everything was unionized. I spent a year getting poorer and poorer. I remember walking the Manhattan bridge contemplating suicide. The only thing that held me back was my memory of Helen. I wanted to carry our dream to the other side.
Then I saw the fragment. I was at a friend’s house and he had this immense and very exotic porn collection. Every kind of porn: bestiality, scat, watersports. Weird porn from Asia. But his prized video was not porn at all, rather a very short and almost indiscernible bit of footage, copied multiple times on VHS and Betamax, of this woman standing against what looked like a backdrop of dense foliage. From the neck up she was the spitting image of Helen, a radiant blonde beauty. From the neck down, and she was not clothed, she was thickly furred, like a guerilla. I was so struck by this I that had my friend replay it twenty times or so (it was only about seven seconds long).
This little piece of video summed up my whole tortured existence, yet gave me hope. I had always felt like I was hovering between two enormous oceans of possibility, and unable to land on either side, forever in limbo. And now I saw that in this state of suspended animation there is an ineffable beauty and grace.
The idea for the opera popped into my head immediately. I ran home from my friend’s apartment and began writing. Helen was the musical one. I was a mediocre singer and primitive in my piano playing. But there was an old upright piano in the basement of my apartment building that the manager was kind enough to let me use, and I quickly began roughing in the main musical and narrative elements of the story. It all centered around this central character: a diaphanous woman with the body of a great ape. I named her Vina Andarow. Which is a combination of Fay Wray’s real first name and the full name of her character in the movie “King Kong.”
Musically I wanted the piece to be a tribute to Helen’s legacy. I was striving for expressionist atonal “free-chromaticism,” with homages to Schoenberg and Allan Berg. The musical score of the opera mirrors the hybrid subject matter. It is one part musical theater and one part wordless antonality. The Vina character never sings, but grunts. It is a kind of a simian tone poetry, or guerilla scat, if you will.
I’ve included a synopsis of the opera below.
As I was writing the opera I knew I would have trouble actually mounting the production. I was dirt poor. But I didn’t let that daunt me or influence my ideas in any way. And as luck would have it, half way through the production a distant uncle, who owned a small regional airline, passed away and willed me $50,000.
I used this money to lease a small theater in Hoboken, create the elaborate sets I had devised, and hired a cast and crew. The production opened on August 12, 1983.
It closed four days later. I was never disappointed by the lack of attendance, or the terrible reviews in the local – meaning Hoboken – press. I always saw this as a message I had to get out, and my real audience was Helen, and the Daughter of Kong.
The musical begins with The Daughter of Kong, emerging from a gigantic abstract tulip-like womb vase constructed out of papier mache. We have this central question, was she an immaculate conception or the true result of the love, the ultimate forbidden love, between a truly lovely actress and the greatest simian of them all.
So we begin, she emerges from the tulip-slash womb and she is completely nude and glistening wet, and then we have a greek chorus suddenly illuminated from behind and we see that they are these unicorn like creatures – with the horns but distorted somehow. Then they begin an indecipherable chant that gradually coalesces into a proper ditty.
Begin the Birth of Vina song.
Vina then crawls on her hands and knees to a large cavernous opening at one end of the stage, and there is a light coming from the opening, and we hear this roaring sound and a horn and we know it is a subway tunnel. Vina crawls into the tunnel and disappears. All the stage elements are then whisked away and we are left with the unicorn monster chorus, who perform an extended libretto that sets up the passing of many years. While they do this, A giant and a giant sun, which are in fact painted weather balloons, come drifting across the stage, at first slowly, and then faster and faster.
Then, after many years have elapsed. Vina emerges from the tunnel, a young woman, born on the shoulders of a cluster of giant rats. She is stunningly beautiful from the waste up. From the waste down, she is pure ape. The rats obviously are enthralled with her and carry her in a procession around the stage. Then the sing the Rat Song.
Begin the Rat Song.
After the song is finished the rats deposit a sleeping Vina on a bench in the station, where she is discovered and surround her with strips of torn up newspapers and various shiny objects.
Here she is discovered by Dr Wrathbone. Dr Wrathbone takes her home raises her as if she were her own. Wrathbone is a eccentric paleontologist notable for her studies of genetic polymorphism in the paleontological record. She was specifically interested in neanderthals and chimera. She believed that Neanderthals were the result of a combination of what she believed to be the rather frequent mating of early humans and chimpanzies.
Her loft is metaphorically constructed out of large bones that we made out of wood and plaster. She is represented as an arch academic who lives at the top of a towering stack of books, looking something like a pyre. She has constructed a large cage in the center of the loft for Vina.
The time with Dr Wrathbone starts magically, Dr Wrathbone is genuinely fascinated with Vina. But is over protective of her and never lets her leave the apartment. The truth is that Dr Wrathbone is writing a thesis about Vina that she hopes will propel her to the forefront of the academic world.
This state of affairs continues, with Vina getting more and more depressed until she sees a young man, Ignacio Toledo, from her window and falls in love. Of course, WE don’t see him. But he is represented by a brilliant blue light of the purest azure that we projected in the form of a windowpane on a scrim.
She dreams of a rendezvous, But Dr Wrathbone is understandably afraid and forbids her from making contact. Vina falls into dispair and sings this haunting and lonely song:
begin Daughter of Kong Love Song.
Finally Vina confronts her Dr Wrathbone. There is a struggle, culminating in an amazing duet between Vina and Wrathbone.
But, get this, the two women are lying prone throughout the struggle, Dr Wrathbone perched on the top of her pyre of books, and Vina in her cage. Instead, the two women’s antagonism is represented by humongous avatars: A giant lizard in the case of Dr Wrathbone, and a colossal ape in the case of Vina. This was no small challenge in terms of costuming and staging as we used human pyramids cloaked in hundreds of yards of fabric and giant papier mache heads. We had to get these huge carts – they were actually used to carry missile warheads to awaiting B-52 bombers in the 60s – and rolled the pyramids out. They would sort of bash their giant grotesque papier mache heads together, while the duet unfolded. I can’t really do it justice, but here is an attempt. It is a call and response duet, alternating between the repetitive chanting of Wrathbone and the free chromaticism of Vina:
begin Vina and Wrathbone Death Struggle song.
At the end of the duet we find Dr Wrathbone exhausted and distraught. She shudders with the realization that she has reenacted the imprisonment of King Kong. After a painful soliloquy she throws herself off the top of her pyre of books and dies in Vina’s arms. Vina wastes no time. She has apparently planned her next step. She dons a black camisole and unlocks the door of the loft, admitting a waiting Ignacio.
They engage in a passionate embrace. She is grunting and unable to speak, which he interprets as swooning excitement. He begins to grope her. He can’t control himself. She tries to push him away, but he persists and rips away her camisole, revealing her biological secret.
But he is a true spirit, and embraces her tenderly, kissing her tears. He gently fondles her hairy rump. They begin a waltz around the loft, set to this music:
Begin Daughter of Kong Waltz
Their microscopically brief heavenly interlude is interrupted by the arrival of the police, or better, the Law. This is represented by a large cube, black as onyx, with “The Law” painting in large white block letters on the side, and a strobing red siren light on top. It rolls into the loft and it sits there for almost a minute, silently, inscrutably strobing. Vina and Ignacio don’t know what to make of it, and sheepishly creep up to it, touching it tentatively. Then suddenly a trap door flies open and seven police officers in riot gear swarm out (we wanted thirty or more, but this is all we could round up). They fly around the apartment like angry hornets, circling around Vina and Ignacio in an obvious reference to the climactic scene in King Kong.. Then the police begin singing:
begin police raid song
The police ultimately pull their guns and aim them at Vina, and they aren’t messing around. They aim to kill this mutant creature. Ignacio throws himself in front of her at the last second, just before they fire. He is mortally wounded and collapses in Vina’s arms. The police looked stunned at what they have done, and drop their guns in unison. Vina is devastated, and holds Ignacio tenderly. The lights dim to a single spotlight shining on her holding Ignacio in a Pieta-like tableau. Then she begins to sing:
begin Ignacio Death Song
After she has finished the lights fade back up, and the police are standing as before, except now they are wearing the grotesque unicorn heads of the chorus. They are the chorus, and sing this concluding chant:
begin final chorus
And the curtain falls.
THE MUSIC (a selection of lyrics from the opera)
BIRTH OF VINA Song
Daughter of Kong – She can barely breath.
Daughter of Kong – She can barely see.
Come the night – beckon like a lover
Through the world – darkness is her mother
And there will never be
And there will never be…another
THE RAT SONG
She has lived among us – as one of us – our queen
She has kept our trust – as one of us – our queen in fur – forever – ever ever
Now she is a woman
Crawling toward the light
Now she is a woman
Crawls toward loves delight.
DAUGHTER OF KONG LOVE SONG
VINA VS WRATHBONE STRUGGLE
You cannot say that you love him – you have not touched – of his flesh
You cannot say that he loves you, he has not seen – of your sex
You are the child of the other, lost in the arms of lover, who is not of this world or any other.
POLICE RAID SONG
Freeze! I said freeze! Hands behind your back woman!
Freeze! I said freeze! Face down on the floor woman!
But no woman is this.
But no human is this.
How are we to perform our social function?
How are we to sustain the social order?
IGNACIO DEATH SONG
12/31/99 12:00 AM