Jane Ciabattari: A Clockwork Orange atop The Standard
Hybridity is the keyword for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. Take words, music, new visual and digital forms, theater, photography, puppets, add tension—and all arrows point toward the creation of something new. The possibilities seemed endless at Monday night’s festival opener as dozens of writers from Russia, Germany, France, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, Denmark, Israel, Bosnia Herzegovina, Colombia, and other countries gathered at the top of the Standard Hotel overlooking the Highline. As this year’s festival program puts it, “There are many ways to tell a story.”
Anthony Burgess showed the world in A Clockwork Orange, published 50 years ago, that you could tell a story by creating a hybrid language—Nadsat, a Russian-influenced English with touches of Cockney and the King James bible, spoken by the Alex narrator and his “three droogs.”
But how could this opening night offering, a 35-minute cabaret production of the US premiere of A Clockwork Operetta, based on recently found Burgess lyrics set to music by Kevin Malone, compete with so many distractions?
Just a few:
The view, the view the view. Gawking seems the only option when entering the glittering bar once known as the Boom Boom Room, which offers 360 degrees: Skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, lights aglow on the cool night, the Hudson River and other traffic far below. All from eighteen floors up, floor to ceiling windows (including restrooms).
Trays of champagne flutes. A fire pit in one corner. The golden columns swirling overhead, the golden bar. The golden crowd.
PEN World Voices chair Salman Rushdie giving an impassioned defense of his recently departed friend Christopher Hitchens. Novelist A.M. Homes describing her commute to Princeton. All those writers, plus editors (Jen McDonald from the New York Times Book Review, Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions,Victor Navasky of The Nation, Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy of Wild River Review, to name a few within three feet of me). (Thanks, Joy, for the photo of the Clockwork performance above.)
But when festival director Jakab Orsos, his face etched by projections from new media artist Onome Ekeh, gave his introduction, the crowd quieted and waited.
Soprano Emily Howard as Alex, backed by the Ebb Trio with Kronos Quartet violist Hank Dutt, blew the roof off. She was—appropriately—raucous, raspy, spellbinding.
As Clockwork Operetta’s star soprano stood, still accepting accolades from the crowd more than an hour after the performance, I voiced my wonderment to Malone, the operetta’s composer, at how she was able to pull the dispersed crowd to her, despite all those other diverting possibilities.
He wasn’t surprised. “Emily is fearless,” he said.