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Music Text

Libretto by Elfriede Jelinek and Olga Neuwirth, based on the film 'Lost Highway' by David Lynch and Barry Gifford (E)


5 singers, 6 actors;
6 instrumental soloists: sax(S,T,Bar)-cl(=bcl,dbcl)-trbn(A,T,B)-elec.git(=Hawaii git)-accordion-kbd(synth,elec.pft);
2(I,II=picc).1.2(I=Ebcl).1(=dbn)-1.2(I=picctpt).1.1-perc(2):I=glsp/SD/crot(set)/steel string/2gongs/2cowbells/sand bl(lg)/1timp/wooden bl(med)/BD/tom-t(med)/tgl(med)/wdbl/thunder sheet(thin)/wine glass/beer bottle/tam-t(lg)/1cym(med)/drum pad/stereo hand microphone; II=vib/SD/crot(set)/steel string/2gongs/2cowbells/sand bl(med)/1timp/wooden bl/chimes/BD/tom-t(lg)/tgl(sm)/wdbl/thunder sheet(thin)/tam-t(med)/cym(sm)/t.bells/stereo hand microphone-strings( electronics-tape/CD player;
fl2,ob,cl2,bn also mouth org

Abbreviations (PDF)



This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Helmut-List-Halle, Graz
Joachim Schlömer, director
Conductor: Johannes Kalitzke
Company: Klangforum Wien


PETE High Baritone
FRED Actor (native laguage English)
Mr EDDY/DICK LAURENT Singer/Actor/Improvising musician (native language English; ideally David Moss)
MYSTERY MAN Counter Tenor
ANDY Counter Tenor
Pete's mother Actress, also singing
Pete's father Actor, also singing
Guard, Detective LOU (small and corpulent) Actor, also singing
Doctor, the Man, Detective HANK (tall and slim) Actor, also singing
Director of prison, ARNIE Actor, also singing

Lost Highway is based on David Lynch's famous film and tells the story of Fred Madison who becomes increasingly alienated from his own existence. Doubts about his wife's fidelity, about himself, and ultimately about their own true identity lead increasingly to obsessions and to a continuous loss of reality. Ominous videotapes and sinister figures appear and evoke the growing feeling of a horror scenario. Video and reality also intermingle when, finally, Fred, to his own surprise and fright, finds himself with bloody hands in front of his wife's dead body. He is arrested and sentenced for murder. In the death cell a mysterious transformation takes place: the trumpet player Fred Madison changes into a completely different person, the car mechanic Pete Dayton. The second part of this nightmare starts, with augmented speed, but is no less terrifying: like a perpetual whirl, from which no one can escape...

Press Quotes

"The score is enigmatic and labyrinthine, constantly morphing from one thing to the next. Ms. Neuwirth... knows how to bend and twist sound like no other." —New York Times

"Neuwirth’s innovation comes with the psychological layers added by her wildly original sonic landscape… I am overwhelmed by its merits. Lost Highway entertains, challenges our perceptions of opera, and demands to be experienced." —Financial Times

"Olga Neuwirth proves again that she can create congenial as well as complex emotional music using both computerised techniques and traditional orchestral sonorities." —Tagesanzeiger Zürich

"The musical narrative develops incredibly rich colours around a disconcerting basic mood, a low drone, that furthermore reminds us of the film… an ambiguous world into which jazz elements and even sparkling disco-riffs are fused in stylised fashion." —Der Standard

"Olga Neuwirth is one of the beacons of the avant-garde, continuing to take a stand against the current stultification of music… Her telling of Lynch’s story is richer in nuances and decidely more optimistic… a score worked through in masterly fashion." —Süddeutsche Zeitung

"A deep, disturbing film has met its operatic match… One of the leading young-generation composers in Europe and one of the most fearless, Neuwirth finds what is really going on with these people." —Los Angeles Times

"Neuwirth has done more than adapt a movie: She has created an ode to an artwork... Neuwirth leads you through a landscape of musical explosions and violent images... Her instrumental music creates a disorienting world of distantly familiar scraps that flit by like a city seen from a hurtling car." —New York Newsday

LA Times
“a magnificently mysterious opera … a work of dramatic genius.”

“What Neuwirth, who was 35 when she composed the opera, has added — with an elaborately haunting 90-minute score for a virtuosic new music ensemble, electronics, actors and singers — is atmosphere galore.”

“Throughout it all, the role of the orchestra grows from a ravishing Lynch-like dreamscape to intricate, phantasmagorical complexity where new music abstraction, Kurt Weill and Monteverdi are all at supernatural home.”

Musical America
“The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied.”

“a theatrical experience that is grippingly novel and unexpected.”

“Oper Frankfurt’s production shows how increasingly relevant Neuwirth’s work is becoming.”

Frankfurter Rundschau
(translated from the original German)
“A manifesto of contemporary, vital musical theater”

“The entire operation is a miracle in precision.”

Die Deutsche Buhne
(translated from the original German)
“You have to tip your hat at this excellent musically interpretive but also technological performance. It has rarely been possible to disappear like this into the soundscapes of contemporary musical theater.”

Composer Notes

A"Waiting for Godot" of passion and closeness – A test arrangement about futility

Why adapt "Lost Highway" for music theatre? Months after having finished it, I am wondering this more than at the time I chose the subject.
Besides feeling personally touched, I was fascinated in the first place by the radical way in which Lynch and Grifford dealt with narration as a progressive series of events. The way people cannot escape from a situation, these merciless time warps, which can make you crazy once you get caught in them, were a fundamental compositional challenge. It was the dismantling of a voyeuristic view which overlooks and unifies everything. This different view, which points nowhere as it is a purely aesthetic device, inspired me to think about its possible musical implications. It is a view of something which cannot be expressed in words. This idea is something I feel very close to with regard to music, though not to life. I also found the different registers of the sound colours of language Lynch uses, from whispering to snorting with laughter, suitable for a kind of music theatre as I imagine it: no beginning, no middle, no end; countless inner and outer (architectural and mental) rooms; what is real and what is a phantom; the commonplace alongside the mystical; all human expression from crying to screaming, from laughter to desperation, co-exist. All that, as well as the "nihil firmum" and the existential, inevitable questioning of questionableness, of the basis of human existence, were crucial for my decision to tackle this unsettling subject.
Lynch’s immediately and rapidly changing visual and aural perspectives, and the ‘topic’ of metamorphosis (which I have already used in "Bählamm’s Fest" as a symbol for the attempt to break out of one’s own and external norms and the search for something new) as a change in life we desire and hope for, were – and still are – so close to me that it didn’t even occur to me in the first place that in my aural conception I would have to match a cinematic masterpiece. A masochistic lust for a downfall in which the alternative script of life proves a futile act, even a bad trip, as a musical drama? "Lost Highway": splintering, breaking and sinking; manifold negations, the coldness of which determine the aesthetic field of tension; the dimensions of a phantasm as hope; the power of costume, which itself leads to misunderstandings. Did I go to Trieste in order to work on this hopelessness, this "nuit sans fin", from beginning to end in peace and quiet, to work the disorder of my own existence into the piece as Umberto Saba did?

To avoid lapsing into mere representation on stage, following Bresson’s warning, it was clear from the start that I had to conceive music and video (the two forms of art which deal with time) simultaneously so that I would be able to match the famous film with a new arrangement of sound and image. Also, I didn’t want a conventional stage setting to inhibit the actors within a constantly changing space of sound and image.

Since Valie Export, an artist who I much admire, immediately came to mind when I started to work on the project, the idea of a ‘suture’ occurred to me, a ‘seam’ which serves to underline the difference between the image of what is happening on stage and the absence of imagery (in other words, the void) on screen – or vice versa, respectively – thus the difference between two forms of perception. The same applies to music played live and music played from a recording, which makes for a certain kind of continuity within heterogeneity. It is not a rigid system, however, since the ‘seam’ may come undone. It is only a method to overcome the menace, the seeming absence of the cause for the anxiety, the phantasm, with the help of the ‘seam’.

It may be a ‘trick’ to cover up the various layers (stage and actors ‘versus’ video projection, narrative fiction ‘versus’ non-narrative fiction, live ‘versus’ recorded material, objective ‘versus’ subjective) and thus to bridge the gap between the different elements. The ‘seam’ serves as a wild card for an apparently absent cause which creates a sense of the uncanny.

The method I’m interested in is to deconstruct images and sounds/music through a discourse of perception, therefore showing that these images and sounds follow a certain logic and can be manipulated. This may enable us to realise that the phantasms (one of the crucial topics of this piece of music theatre) have a history, or a core. The problem of images and sounds is that they have a metaphoric quality: they are densified complexes of imagination which provide a texture of sounds and images for an entire scenario of threat.

Since "Lost Highway" offers no hope from beginning to end, the video, together with the sound, is to form a constantly flickering space of sound and imagery.

Although there are not many instructions by the composer – after all, the composer has learned that a piece of music theatre is usually dealt with according to the wishes of those performing it – there is one thing that has to be complied with: the use of video. The reason is this:
the ‘ultimate threat’ is created from a point-of-view shot (in the case of "Lost Highway", it appears to be generated by the mystery man with a built-in camera eye, who sees everything and thus perhaps records and manipulates everybody and everything including longing and desire); as this shot cannot be clearly attributed to one of the main characters on stage, it evokes the constantly present ghost of a free-ranging view. The video is also intended to adopt the point of view of an impossible subjectivity which cannot be localised within a narrative space.

The video tapes are shown throughout the piece, even if the score indicates a blackout or fade-ins/outs. This does not mean that the video has to be switched off at those points. It remains as a texture (colours and flickering light, indicating something like time standing still or a room without dimensions, rather than real images referring to something in particular).
Since I regard "Lost Highway" as a test arrangement for a problem concerning human existence, I wanted the stage to be aseptic and empty. Therefore the required use of video is not intended to be decoration, but an integrative element of the stage arrangement. Or rather, the videos create the very stage! That is to say: three-dimensional space is created through video screens, gauze and the video projection itself. The videos make for quick changes of place (in the outer and inner spaces), as well as for the spaces of wish, desire and anxiety in Fred and Pete’s heads. The singers and actors have to move through this terrible sense of space, namely, the sense of being nowhere, in a non-space, the non-real, the non-palpable. The videos could be about the ‘u-topos’ – an ideal which is lost but also dreamt of, unattainable.

The fade-ins and fade-outs I introduced are supposed to create non-human images which interrupt the story line for a short time. During the visual fade-outs, the acoustic space is expanded (quick cross-fade to all loudspeakers in the room); during the visual fade-ins, however, it is contracted (back to the loudspeakers on stage).

Since dreams often reveal the true nature of things, it was important to me as a composer to create acoustic images to avoid being dependent on imagery. Various sequences, in the style of radio plays, may help to build up independent images in listeners’ minds.

A single scene was changed by Elfriede Jelinek and myself, for its peculiar cinematic quality which can in no way be recreated on stage. This is the sequence showing the car chase on Mulholland Drive and Mr. Eddy’s subsequent outburst of violence. Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent and the mystery man are different representations of the masques of evil. In this case, Mr. Eddy, the porno producer in the guise of a popular social ‘Mr. Clean’, does not become really brutal in a physical sense but becomes hurtful and destructive through his use of language. Speaking becomes acting; when a banal act – smoking in a garage – is brought to mind, a discourse of horror develops. The horror of language is created by the repetitions and the fragmentation of language taken from this particular context, in analogy to "I can kill with words." In this scene, the longest in "Lost Highway", the emphasis is on the way language can be manipulated for a populist cause and turned into violence. This is why Mr. Eddy’s/Dick Laurent’s throat is cut at the end of the piece – in a way, he is robbed of the power of language.

In the ‘non-illusionary’, real first part, in which the actors only whisper and talk, it can be seen how the relationship of a well-off couple has come to be determined by a lifeless day-to-day routine. Fred, who really loves Renee, gets increasingly unsettled through his fear of losing ‘possession’ of his beloved partner due to his unspoken past. As with Alice later on, she is a fetish who does not show any reaction. Both Renee and Alice are masters of perennial excuses, of pseudo-answers which call for interpretation. These seem to disguise lies. This gives rise to free speculation. This first bleak, enigmatic part is dominated by live electronics all over the room. The audience is, in a way, integrated into the failure of the relationship. The impossibility of eluding the situation, which leads to a constantly present sense of disappointment and in turn results in insecurity, gives rise to impotency and aggression because reality remains in a state of suspense. At the climax of the scene, the de-sexualisation between Fred and Renee turns into re-sexualisation through murder. Fred transforms his exclusion from Renee’s knowledge and the desperation about the murder of his beloved wife into sad images, phantasms. He takes on the masque of a young, virile man, hoping to be able to start again, in order to break up his wife’s coldness with his power, passion, love and carefreeness. Pete succumbs to Alice’s apparent undisguised character and passion, because that is what he had been dreaming of. During Alice’s ploy and his expectation of closeness, Pete becomes increasingly impatient; at the same time, she gains more and more control over him. He, who is passionately in love, gets instrumentalised by Alice for the solution to her life. This circumstance makes him increasingly speechless since he becomes aware that she has no feelings for him and is only playing with him. His means of seeking a solution by escaping into a phantasm now becomes a horrifying experience indeed, for there is no escape from the cold woman and her silence, which means power. Absolute futility! In that moment when Pete finally realises his alienation from Alice, the soprano part (a high soprano with very little vibrato) receives a metallic change in her voice through live electronics. Alice eludes him with the words, "you will never have me," literally disappearing from stage through a slit in the canvas. The psychic disaster has started all over again. The powerlessness and helplessness, as well as the loss or rather the destruction of the self resulting from it, once more lead to murder, caused by a sense of forlornness at facing the incomprehensible: this time in the vastness of a desert, the place of death in Lynch’s films.

The unspoken becomes a nightmare; waiting and false hopes take root in every skin particle if open questions are silenced. For if you know precisely what to expect you can be calmer: that, however, was denied to both Fred and Pete. Equality in a relationship, however, is only possible if you try to take each other seriously and to get the other involved. Therefore, the seemingly neutral silence becomes an unbearable demonstration of power over another person. This is what "Lost Highway" is about.

The vibrant, unstable area between standstill and movement, between the living and the dead and between form and dissolution of form, may put us into a terrifying and, at the same time, fascinating vortex between dream and reality. In the end, everything remains a chronicle of violence, love, loss and pain. Perhaps it is exactly this end point which gives us the idea of a different script of life.

Olga Neuwirth, July 2003



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