Hear the words “Milli Vanilli,” and a few other choice words might spring to mind: Fake. Fraud. Scandal. Hair.
But now, thanks to three re-visionaries, the story of the band’s rise and spectacular fall might soon conjure up a very different connection: opera.
Yes, on Saturday night at the Watermill Center, Joe Diebes, Christian Hawkey, and David Levine presented snippets of “An Untitled Opera Based on the Story of Milli Vanilli.” And why not? The life of the stripper-turned-millionaire-spouse Anna Nicole Smith received the operatic treatment at the Royal Opera House in London this spring; and a musical has been staged about Jerry Springer, king of sleaze television. The story of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the public faces of a group of studio musicians working under the name Milli Vanilli, is not as tawdry as these.
In fact, it has many of the elements of classical theater, with its Faustian bargains, search for truth, damning chorus (the media), and a tragic end. That one protagonist ends up dead only increases the bona fides of this tabloid tale.
“It’s a classically operatic story about human voice . . . German singers in the American pop idiom. The echt language of opera versus the language of pop,” Mr. Levine said. “They are trapped between their authentic voice and the pop voice, and it ends tragically.”
Milli Vanilli was the subject of the very first episode of the VH1 “Behind the Music” series in 2000. One of the most popular groups on the charts at the end of the 1980s, they became the object of international ridicule after it was revealed that the voices heard on their blockbuster America-debut album were not those of Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan; a Grammy Award for Best New Artist was revoked.
Frank Farian, a German music producer, had formed the band in much the same way that the Monkees had been artificially created a few decades before. He already had his singers and musicians together — but, this being the zenith of the MTV era — was seeking front men with a more telegenic image when he found what he was looking for in a Munich dance club. Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan had amazing, long corn-rowed hair, and they could dance. They were Milli Vanilli, as far as the public knew, and it was their picture on the front cover of the band’s first album. Released in America in 1989 as “Girl You Know It’s True,” it went platinum six times.
The record released in Europe did not attribute the vocals to Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan, but the American version did.
The truth was revealed at a concert in Connecticut, when the CD they were lip-syncing to began to skip, prompting them to run off the stage. Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan were vilified. Mr. Farian finally admitted to the deception about a year later, and the group was stripped of both its Grammy and its American record label, Arista.
The story might have ended there, but it didn’t. Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan insisted they could indeed sing, and they continued to try to prove it by releasing records featuring their own vocals. In 1998, a comeback of Milli Vanilli was planned with both of them singing. Mr. Pilatus, however, was a troubled man, with a criminal record and a drug addiction, and just as a comeback tour was about to kick off, he was found dead of a suspected overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room.
Clearly, it was the stuff of tragedy.
The score of the embryonic opera was written by Mr. Diebes; Mr. Hawkey wrote the lyrics, and Mr. Levine directed. In notes describing the project, there is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Although the essay was a commentary on the impact of film on conceptions of artistic uniqueness, it has much relevance to the opera’s themes of voice and authenticity. (Is there even such a thing as authenticity in studio pop recordings, with the level of technical intervention that has become the norm?)
Mr. Hawkey pointed out that the Milli Vanilli saga took place at a time when the world was moving from analog to digital technologies. What seemed a shocking fraud 20 years ago might these days be deemed almost the norm. The “fiction of originality” exposed in this story gives it the element of the tragic, Mr. Hawkey said. “The group Milli Vanilli performed that fiction in the visual space provided by MTV.”
Since the Milli Vanilli scandal broke, more than a few performers whose fame relies more on appearance than singing talent (most notably, Britney Spears and Ashley Simpson) have been caught mouthing the words to pre-taped vocals. The prevalence and popularity of Auto-Tune, a processor that improves the quality of a vocal performance, makes the debates over Milli Vanilli seem almost quaint.
The five pieces the composers presented on Saturday in an open rehearsal were the result of a two-week workshop at the Watermill Center. The singers were John Rose (baritone), Jonathan Kline (tenor), and Christina Campanella (mezzo-soprano). Izzi Ramkissoon, a laptop musician, did the mixing and the samples that were incorporated into the performance, and Margaret Schedel played cello.
In one piece, portions of Wagner’s opera “The Master Singer From Nuremberg” were sung while a character representing the music producer, Mr. Farian, repeated the opening sentence of “The Studio as Compositional Tool,” a lecture delivered by the avant-garde pop musician Brian Eno in 1979: “The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral.” That line as well as a line from the Milli Vanilli song “Blame It on the Rain,” performed by a character identified simply as “Studio,” were sampled in real time with a digital recording deck.
In a fully realized version of the opera, Mr. Levine said, it was likely that the setting would be a recording studio. Only the lines sung by the characters who represent Mr. Pilatus and Mr. Morvan will be acoustic. “Everyone else will be on mike or have their voice manipulated to invert or redeem the two non-vocalists,” Mr. Diebes said.
The other pieces included one that simulated a press conference, with the real responses of Mr. Morvan and Mr. Pilatus to media questions juxtaposed with comments posted on YouTube about the band. The third piece was a harmonic remix of “Girl You Know It’s True” with nonsensical German sung over the music. The fourth was based on an interview with Mr. Farian.
According to Mr. Diebes, the telltale skipping CD became a motif that he found inspirational. “The loops, the cycles, repetition on many levels” — all these, he said, created a cycle with “no real beginning, middle, or end.” The chord progressions and vocal lines of the opera were all based on this cycle, making the music and the text expressly nonlinear and impressionistic. Much of Saturday’s performance by the vocalists and cellist was improvised, using melodic progressions worked out earlier.
The producers emphasized that the opera was very far from finished. “We’re still working with fragments, technical ideas,” Mr. Diebes said after the presentation. But, for the first time, concepts that had been discussed and experimented with for a few years came alive at the workshop as performance pieces. “This is not definitive, but a work in progress,” he said, “a process that was still changing up to this morning.”