Two of Britain's Greatest Artists Made an Opera About Acid and Angels
Maverick composers Mica Levi and Dean Blunt came together for an opera that left our writer with more questions than answers.
“Cause anything’s possible, oh anything is possible” read the ICA page for INNA, an opera directed by Dean Blunt with music by Mica Levi. In terms of clues regarding what to expect, that was it—well, that and a 20-second still clip of the production’s poster with a distorted guitar shredding over it. Blunt and Levi are both multi-faceted artists who have become synonymous with showing rather than telling, offering little explanation regarding their work and rarely giving interviews.
It’s no exaggeration to they're two of the most original and exciting artists in the UK today—and by the time many music publications had announced their new venture, it had already sold out. The child of two musicians, Levi was writing and playing music at an age when most of us were still learning the alphabet. Like Mozart, she learned to play the violin at age four. A musical child prodigy, she has now grown into an artist with her band Micachu & The Shapes and her solo work such as ‘Mica Levi Presents Bedtime’, an hour of ‘live heavy rock music’. Or maybe you know her for the soundtracks she scored for Under the Skin and Jackie, which earned her nominations for a BAFTA and an Academy Award respectively.
For his part, Dean Blunt is arguably one of the great British artists of our time—a reincarnation of the YBAs of the 90s but in the age of eBay and Russian torrenting websites. Blunt’s category-rejecting artistry and penchant for lying to interviewers has earned him a reputation as a prankster, with as much interest surrounding his antics as his music itself. See: his 2016 "art opening" that was just a stock photo mounted on a white wall, the fact that he sent his bodyguard up to accept his award on his behalf at the 2015 NME Awards (and no-one present seemed realize), this 2013 interview with FACT Mag conducted over Skype’s instant messenger service.
His live shows are another outlet for his considered mischief: one of his shows consisted of a room so filled with heavy smoke, strobes and uncomfortable noise that most of the audience spent it covering their ears with their hands and coughing, something a more "normal" musician’s nightmares are made of. At another, a "shotter" handed out laughing gas balloons with Union Jacks printed on them to the audience as "this makes me proud to be British"—a clip from Craig David’s 2000 Mobo Award acceptance speech blared across a similarly smoked-filled room.
And so, to INNA, the collaboration between these two artists. Two days before the performance, I received an email telling me that the opera would last 90 minutes and that there would be a strict no-phone policy in place. If anyone had a problem with this they were offered a full refund. Then came another email the next day, telling us that the opera would now run for 45 to 50 minutes. The ruling on phones remained unchanged. At the ICA, our phones were placed in Yondr cases that were locked and could only be opened by ICA staff upon exit. I started to sweat from separation anxiety. A single sheet of paper lay on each of our seats with the following message:
“dropped acid with my favourite person
became an angel
watched over the city
Then it was show time: or rather, 30 seconds of pitch black and silence. I wondered if this was it, the whole show, Dean Blunt taking away our phones and making us face our innermost demons with no distractions and no phones for 40 minutes. Thankfully I was wrong, and the curtains pulled back to reveal a stage bathed in red light and smoke. To the right, three women wearing red and sitting on a red sofa—one seemingly terrified, one contemptuous, and one indifferent. To the left, a box with three skulls sitting on it. A man with huge angel wings strapped to his back walked into center stage. Was this a vision of hell or a bad acid trip? Is there even a difference? Does it even matter?
I often hate going to see opera, but mostly because it usually lasts three hours and I have no idea what anyone is saying. But at 45 minutes, this was bite-size piece for the millennial attention span. As the women took turns moving around the stage and singing over the guttural, machine-like guitar, I stared on in awe wondering how all humans have roughly the same throat and lungs but only some can make such noises using theirs. The soundtrack—violent, drawn out and heavily distorted guitars over sub bass—pulsed in sync white strobes and the red light that bathed everything to create a feeling of anxiety and confusion. Essentially, INNA incorporated both Levi’s signature use of non-standard tunings and excessive distortion and Blunt’s refusal to let anyone easily ascribe meaning to his work. It was a perfect marriage. And then...
And then it was over. As always with Dean Blunt you don't know what it means but I’m not sure you're meant to. In an interview with The Guardian in 2012 he complained that "People wonder why nothing is interesting, it's because they try to get a fucking answer to it, to everything." He continues: "There are things you can't articulate. There's that 'thing' in the world—music has it, every kind of art has it. And people talking about it can destroy it."
As always with opera (for me anyway), it wasn’t easy to make out what anyone was actually saying. What I did make out however was a piece of speech delivered by one of the women to the tortured angel as he lay crumpled on the floor towards the end of the play: “why am I here/ why are you here/ I would have done anything for you/ I don't care." In terms of meaning, that’s probably as close as you’re going to get to an answer with these two talented mavericks.