Gregg Bordowitz

Gregg Bordowitz talks about his opera version of The History of Sexuality

Paul Chan’s costume sketches for Gregg Bordowitz’s The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera, 2010. Left: Pope. Center: Michel Foucault. Right: Cop.

Gregg Bordowitz is a writer, AIDS activist, and artist. In 1993, he produced the autobiographical documentary Fast Trip Long Drop, which considers events around his experience testing positive for HIV antibodies in 1988, and in 2004 MIT Press published a collection of his texts, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986–2003. Here he discusses his latest project, The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera, which has a work-in-progress showing at Tanzquartier Wien October 1 and 2.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, Paul Chan asked me to come by his studio to discuss an idea he had for us to collaborate on an opera based on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. We immediately began working on it as a way to hang out and have fun together, and we quickly decided that we wanted to make something on a Wagnerian scale, maybe even something that was impossible to produce—like what Karl Kraus did with Die letzten Tage der Menschheit [The Last Days of Mankind]. We wanted to challenge ourselves, so we came up with a scenario for all three books that involves dozens of characters, from Diogenes to Martha Stewart. 

A curator in Vienna (Achim Hochdörfer) got wind of the project and asked me if we were interested in doing a work-in-progress production. I told him that it was nowhere near completion and in fact it was impossible to complete, but he was persistent. Paul and I had sketched out the story, and I had already outlined some of the melodic ideas. So I wrote a libretto in two months. Paul made five character sketches.

There are five performers in the piece—six, actually, if I count myself. Foucault is the protagonist. There’s a character called Ephebe, Foucault’s love interest who represents the man-boy love relationship that Foucault is preoccupied with in all three volumes of History of Sexuality. There’s Sigmund Freud. There’s the pope, and also a cop, who functions as the universal image of the law. The cop is sort of a dominatrix, and I think Paul had the idea of a female justice figure in mind when he sketched the costume. In Paul’s original drawings, Foucault is wearing assless chaps with a prosthetic penis that dangles below the zipper, and Kristine Woods, the costume designer, has fabricated an extremely beautiful and very large felt penis that extends pretty far below the crotch line.

So you have the three main figures that Foucault considers when addressing sexuality: psychoanalysis, the law, and Christianity, as well as the man-boy love relationship of ancient Greece. Foucault represents the main arguments of the book. Freud, the cop, and the pope are figured onstage as demons or ghosts that haunt Foucault, and they all talk over his shoulder. The only person who directly addresses Foucault and vice versa is Ephebe. It’s the only relationship in which the characters recognize each other. Their relationship not only comments on Foucault’s own reflection on homosexuality in ancient Greece; it is also the narrative motor of this version of the opera. The sixth character, which I play myself, is the California academic. His job is to introduce Foucault at a lecture. That part is very small and I don’t sing. Everyone else in the cast is fabulously talented except for me. 

The opera is going to be composed musically through improvisation with the performers, and I will be directing. There is no written music. I can’t write or read music, but I have some basic melodic ideas. There is another sound component, a kind of ambient piece that I produced on my computer with my assistant in Chicago. It will be playing at the same time as the opera is being sung; it’s more about texture than anything else. It could be a big mess! And that’s the challenge and the fun of it. I’m really delighted to be working in this way where I’m making up a piece with five other people two weeks before the performance.

I came to Vienna in the middle of the summer to cast the opera and was extraordinarily fortunate to meet performers associated with Tanzquartier Wien, which is coproducing the project with the MUMOK. I got an amazing cast. All of the performers are well known in Austria. Everyone immediately got what I was trying to do with the concept and the melody, and when I sang my version to them they said to me that they thought it sounded like medieval chant. I went to Hebrew school for a while. I didn’t mention it, but that’s largely where I’m getting the tunes from. There’s a liturgical style to it.

I wrote the libretto in such a way that I wouldn’t use direct quotations from the book. Each line counts to ten syllables: Some of it is iambic pentameter, and some of it rhymes, but not all of it. While the music is improvised, for the most part it will be set in the rehearsal. But there will be variability. I will give the performers permission to try things onstage. I’m not expecting identical performances, but I also don’t expect a large range of variation between the performances. One of the reasons I cast myself in a small role was because it occurred to me that it would be more fun to be onstage than to watch the opera.

I have here in front of me the copy of the History of Sexuality: An Introduction that I read when I was nineteen years old. It’s almost the case that there are more sentences underlined than not underlined. The opera attempts to recapture the excitement that I felt upon first reading the book, which is bound up with my romantic relationships at the time and my discovery of sexuality as a teenager approaching my twenties. My job as a director of this opera is to infuse Foucault’s ideas with all of those feelings of excitement and enthusiasm I had for the book when I was that age. It’s about Foucault as an intellectual hero. And that’s one of the reasons for this project: I’m testing my relationship to these books that were fundamental to my growth as a young person.