Finding inspiration (and terror) in Fox News, a Dutch composer rips an opera from the headlines
By Christina Campodonico
For Dutch composer JacobTV, American media culture inspires both fascination and disdain.
As a kid growing up in post-war Europe, he loved the pops of American color and sound that crossed the Atlantic over the airwaves.
“Walt Disney, Hollywood, rock ‘n’ roll — everything that was attractive came from your country,” says JacobTV, born Jacob Ter Veldhuis, over the phone. “So for me, even now, although I visit your country three or four times a year, America is still somewhat exotic.”
Known as “the Andy Warhol of new music,” JacobTV loves watching Fox News for its entertainment value. He calls Sarah Palin a “timeless” example of a 21st-century politician, though the rhetoric espoused by her and other conservative mouthpieces makes him shudder.
But it was another shiver of sorts that inspired JacobTV to take his fascination with the media to a whole new level. He was strolling through downtown Chicago on a freezing cold day when he saw the ABC7 news studio lit up through a glass façade. Inside anchors were sitting at their desks, sipping coffee, chatting and having their makeup touched up.
“You see the anchors sitting through a glass wall and you see the city reflected in that glass wall — the skyline of Chicago. So I saw two things: I saw the media and I saw the world,” he recalls. “And in a split second, I knew what I wanted to do.”
That spark of inspiration gave birth to “The News,” a reality opera that puts today’s 24/7 infotainment news cycle under the microscope with two singing anchors, a nine-piece band and a series of video clips and interviews culled from TV news broadcasts.
Donald Trump even makes an “appearance” or two.
Director Tanya Kane-Parry describes the multimedia media mash-up as the “The Daily Show” meets the theater.
“If Jon Stewart wrote an opera, it would be ‘The News,’” she says.
For JacobTV, creating “The News” has been a firsthand education in media production. Much like the video editor of a news package, he picks through footage for quotes and words to riff on in his musical compositions, then lays video on top and composes the score for the band.
“More or less I become like a little journalist. I listen to this speech and I decide what I like and what I don’t like and what I want to use,” he says.
The result is a carefully curated and organized cacophony of TV sound bites and vocal speech grooves.
“JacobTV has kind of crafted this woven interplay. It’s an interaction really. I experience it like I’m in a duet with the film,” says vocalist Loire Cotler, who plays one of the singing anchors and brings her articulations in konnakal, a South Indian percussive singing style, to the production.
“We’re hearing these words — we’re hearing all these buzzwords, we’re hearing headlines, the TV-speak. But what is also going on is this sort of undertone, or sonic field and rhythm and pulse and cadence,” she says. “There’s this amazing juxtaposition between that footage and also our role as the vocalists.”
Similarly, touring “The News” around the world has also put JacobTV — like a journalist — at the center of clashes between censorship and free speech.
When segments of “The News” were presented at Rome’s Maxxi Museo five years ago, a clip featuring Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was excised against the composer’s wishes. The museum’s curators had removed the “video concerto” fearing political retribution, but JacobTV got his “revenge” later.
While out to dinner with his wife in Rome, he happened to strike up a conversation with a journalist from one of Italy’s leading newspapers.
“The next day I had a long article [about me] in La Repubblica saying, ‘Dutch Artist censored by Museum,’” says JacobTV. “We had a full house.”
Donald Trump takes the place of Berlusconi in Long Beach Opera’s iteration of “The News,” yet JacobTV has not always been able to play so fast and loose with freedom of speech in other scenarios. When he took the production to Moscow in November of last year, he was warned to tread carefully on the subject of President Vladimir Putin in his show.
“The Dutch ambassador invited me for lunch. Can you imagine what he asked? He said, ‘Please, JacobTV, can you be very, very careful here with what you’re doing with your show. Because we have a very delicate situation with Mr. Putin,” says JacobTV. “I had to laugh, because I’m a composer. How can a composer make a dictator like Putin angry?”
Even so, knowing that artists in Russia are not afforded the same rights to freedom of expression as they are in other countries, JacobTV decided to take out any mention of the controversial Russian leader, “even though I had a beautiful song about Putin,” he says.
Overall, making “The News” has opened up JacobTV’s eyes to the workings of the media and the political forces that surround it, but he still regards journalists with skepticism and scrutiny.
“Making ‘The News’ makes me realize the power a journalist has, the power that you have by manipulating truth,” he says to me.
“What is truth?” he then muses. “It is not so black and white.”
“The News” plays at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (June 25 and 26) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $29 to $137. Call (562) 432-5934 or visit longbeachopera.org/tickets.