Byrne, Baby, Byrne
By Patrick McDonald
15 October 2005
On his concert tour of Australia earlier this year, David Byrne nonchalantly mentioned that he was reading biographies of former Philippines dictator Imelda Marcos. He also enthused about a new-found passion for opera, inspired by a visit to Sydney's Opera in the Park, and a desire to explore further dance music collaborations in the wake of his club hit, Lazy.
Little did anyone suspect that these three disparate elements would collide in Here Lies Love, a world-premiere work for next year's Adelaide Bank Festival.
"I must have been well into the idea by then," Byrne chuckles from New York.
"This has been gestating for a long time, so it's possible that a lot of things I've been thinking about will start to re-emerge, things that I'd thought of but hadn't found a place for."
Here Lies Love will tell the remarkable story of Madame Marcos in a contemporary pop opera, with a disco setting inspired by her passion for New York nightclub Studio 54 and music co-written by British dance floor hit-maker Fatboy Slim.
A multinational cast, including Filipino singers, will bring the Marcos world to life under the direction of Marianne Weems, best known for her work with New York's experimental Wooster Group and The Builders' Association.
The Royal Adelaide Showground's Ridley Centre will be transformed into a giant dance club with multiple video screens and a fully operational bar.
"We're going to prepare to re-light the whole venue, not just the stage, so that the audience feels a bit like they're in a club," Byrne says. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm also frightened – it will be our first public performance but the music is going really well so far."
The work is a major creative leap for the former Talking Heads frontman, whose previous theatrical endeavours have been confined to soundtracks for the stage and film. It is also the first collaboration between Byrne and Fatboy Slim – alias Norman Cook – and has had them sending digital updates of the score back and forth across the Atlantic.
"We've only met once," Byrne says, breaking up with nervous laughter. "For this particular project, I thought he might be a perfect fit."
Byrne says Slim's music crosses over between the contemporary dance scene and the work's classic disco era.
"I think it's also the fact that he has at one point played a real instrument – not to take away from anyone who plays turntables," Byrne says, referring to Cook's previous musical incarnation as bass player for 1980s British band the Housemartins.
Adelaide Festival artistic director Brett Sheehy initially asked Byrne whether he was developing any future projects three years ago, while he was still director of the Sydney Festival. When Sheehy got the Adelaide job, it finally gave Byrne a deadline for Here Lies Love.
Oddly, the initial inspiration for the work was not Marcos but goes back to Byrne's reading of Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor, an account of the final days of the "Lion of Judah", Ethiopia's last emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975).
"He interviewed the ministers and court of Haile Selassie, right after Haile Selassie passed away," Byrne says. "They painted this kind of bizarre, surreal, very theatrical world of the court of an emperor. Everything is kind of heightened and things can be done for really bizarre reasons."
More recently, Byrne saw a film about Imelda Marcos and her "love of the disco life". "In the 1980s, she would come to New York and hang out at Studio 54. She loved it so much she installed a disco in her New York townhouse," he says. Byrne only recalls going to Studio 54 once, and a similarly influential disco called Paradise Garage on another occasion in the 1980s. While the setting is from a specific period in the Marcos reign, Here Lies Love will tell Imelda's life story from childhood until she and husband Ferdinand were deposed and flown out of the Philippines by U.S. Marines. "The auditions were fairly hilarious," Byrne says. "Because they have to sing for the whole thing and because it's energetic dance music, I set up a karaoke lounge in my studio here.
"I really wanted to get a sense of how they would respond to that kind of music."
While at the Adelaide Festival, Byrne will also perform his light-hearted talk on presentation software, I ♥PowerPoint, as part of Artists' Week.
While I ♥ PowerPoint is performed with Byrne's trademark quirky and lighthearted approach, it does present a history of the program and the people who invented it.
"It's all pretty well researched – in fact, I've met some of the people. They came to my talk when I did it out near Silicon Valley," Byrne says. "I was scared that they'd point out all my mistakes but they were all pretty good about it."