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Music writing

A night at the psycho-opera with Karen O

Published in the Sun-Herald on May 20, 2012.

Act two begins in a Sydney hospital. Bruised and hungover, feeling lucky to be whole, Karen O decides that things will have to change. Her band, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is on the cusp of international fame. Her unpredictable, unmissable punk rock persona has made her a fashion icon. But that woman is dead. A vital part of her is missing, broken on the floor of the Metro theatre.

“My recklessness and the amount that I was hurting myself was escalating,” she remembers. “I’d be wasted, on this trajectory of ‘something bad’s going to happen’ – and it did.” Four songs into the set, she was draped over a monitor when she fell, face first, into the photo pit, smashing her back against a metal barrier on the way down. The speaker toppled after her and landed on her head.

“I could have snapped my neck, bashed my skull in, broken my spine, but I guess the alcohol kept me limber,” she says. So she climbed back up and called for Maps, the tender love song that earths the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Fever To Tell. “I had to get back on that stage. If I hadn’t got back right away, I’d have been paranoid to go back ever again.” She sang the last line, walked off and was taken straight to casualty.

Karen Orzolek returns to Sydney, nine years later, as the creator and star of Stop The Virgens, a highlight of the Vivid festival billed as a “psycho opera” – part song cycle, part performance art, part Grand Guignol horror show. Her bandmates in Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase, are coming with her, in a group that also includes Sam Spiegel (producer Squeak E. Clean), Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark, plus Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of the Raconteurs.

Since her fall, Orzolek has restlessly reinvented herself. There have been two more Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums, each very different from the last. She has directed music videos, fronted a short-lived band called Native Korean Rock and the Fishnets, tried her hand at choreography and composed an acclaimed film score for her former boyfriend Spike Jonez’s adaptation of the children’s classic Where The Wild Things Are.

“I have a problem with only being comfortable outside my comfort zone. I much prefer going towards the new,” she says. “Most of what’s happened in my career so far hasn’t been up to me. I was at film school and had a band on the side – Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wanted to be a director and ended up being…” The sentence tails off into silence. The contrast between her extrovert stage presence and shy personality is acute, her laugh so nervous it’s charming.

We meet for tea at Norwood, a New York club. She is chic, naturally, in a red silk shirt, a beige trenchcoat, red lipstick and grey-green nail varnish, but these are civvies, exhibiting none of the flair for dressing up that has made her costumes an event in themselves. It would be asking for trouble to go out wearing a harlequin leotard, a skeleton suit or a psychedelic Native American headdress, even in Manhattan.

There are seven looks in Stop The Virgens, created by her long term aesthetic partners, designer Christian Joy and make-up artist Mike Potter. They include an abominable snowwoman dressed in feathers and human hair, an extra-terrestrial and a fuchsia superhero with lobster claws. As the show progresses, Orzolek’s wig turns from black to grey to white.

“At her rock shows, she’s chaotic and can be anywhere,” says the director, Adam Rapp. “With this, there’s a static, regal, centred quality and everything around her is psychotic and in a weird way an extension of who she was.” The goddess shrieks and coos, her voice powerful, then vulnerable, as the chorus responds to her commands. The kinetic energy of old is absent, but you can’t keep your eyes off her.

Stop The Virgens is about growing up. “It embodies the collision of darkness and innocence,” according to a note to cast members from the original production, at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. There is no libretto, forcing audience members to piece together their own narrative from lyric fragments and visual cues. Some literal-minded critics have questioned whether opera is the right word at all.

It began as a set of songs, written in Los Angeles in 2004, the year after her fall in Sydney. She had split from her boyfriend, Liars frontman Angus Andrews, and left New York, feeling like she was in a rut. Together with Spiegel and a cast of friends, she recorded the music in a fortnight.

“It just kind of gushed out of me,” she says. “It was almost like a conduit. The entire cycle was there in two weeks, which is unheard of.” But once the songs were finished, she didn’t know what to do with them. A plan to approach nine different directors, to make a video for each track, was scrapped. She began to correspond with set designer KK Barrett about how to present it visually.

After seven years of sending ideas back and forth, they decamped to Williamstown, Massachusetts, for a workshop with Rapp and the musicians, with the aim of creating something that couldn’t be downloaded or ignored. “One way you can get people to pay attention for more than five minutes is to put on a live event and if you’re lucky, maybe they can even have a cathartic or memorable experience while they’re there,” she says.

Seven Virgens were cast, then thirty more chorus members. For the first time in her life, she was surrounded by women, after a career spent with male rock musicians and roadies. “There’s an intuition, a sensitivity, the way women’s minds work,” she says. “There’s much less ego and a willingness to be all for it without needing to run the show.”

Collaborators talk about her openness and childlike enthusiasm, but there’s no question who’s in charge. For the third Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, It’s Blitz, she told Zinner to put away his guitar, ditching the band’s signature sound. “When Karen orders ‘no guitar for Nick!’ it makes you approach things in a different way,” he told Spin magazine. The new disco oriented direction was a critical hit.

“I never felt like I was making it up as I went along, I felt like it was making me up as it went along,” she says. Recording sessions for a new album are under way. The less comfortable she feels, the happier she’ll be.