Michael Nyman

Facing Goya

Facing Goya

Facing Goya

WarnerClassics 0927-45342-2
Length: 133:50

Craniometrist 1
Eugenicist/Art Critic 1
Winnie B?we, soprano

Craniometry Assistant 2
Art Critic 2
Genetic Research Doctor
Marie Angel, soprano

Art Banker/Widow
Hilary Summers, contralto

Craniometry Assistant 2
Eugenicist/Art Critic 3
Chief Executive of a Bio -Tech Company
Harry Nicoll, tenor

Craniometrist 2
Art Critic 4
Genetic Academic
Omar Ebrahim, baritone

Michael Nyman Band
Alexander Balanescu, violin (leader, Acts 1-3)
Gabrielle Lester violin (leader, Act 4)
Catherine Thompson, violin
Gillian Findlay, violin
Katherine Shave, violin
Catherine Musker, viola
Bruce White, viola
Anthony Hinnigan, cello
Roger Linley, double bass
Steven Williams, double bass
Martin Elliott, bass guitar
David Roach, soprano, alto sax
Simon Haram, soprano, alto sax
Andrew Findon, baritone sax, flute, alto flute, piccolo
Steven Sidwell, trumpet, flugelhorn
Nigel Gomm, trumpet, flugelhorn
David Lee, French horn
Nigel Barr, bass trombone, tuba, euphonium
Andrew Fawbert, bass trombone, tuba, euphonium
James Woodrow, electric guitar

conducted by Michael Nyman

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The Genesis Of Facing Goya

In both its musical and intellectual subject matter, Facing Goya has a complex history, stretching back to the mid 1980s. In 1985 the painter Paul Richards and I made the first TVproduced music/art video, The Kiss, an ‘operatic duet’ for Channel 4, sung by Anne Pigalle and Omar Ebrahim. The text was assembled from writings by 15th century Italian painters (from Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (1972)) concerned with the revelation through facial expressions of inner feelings and character (one of the key themes of Facing Goya). A line like ‘The face shows indications of the nature of men, their vices and temperaments’ is crucial to both video and opera. (The recorded version, on The Kiss and Other Movements (Virgin) - with Dagmar Krause replacing Anne Pigalle - was released in 1985).

The second key source for Facing Goya arose accidentally out of my opera The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (which is also concerned with body image). While I was finishing the opera in Italy in the summer of 1986, I discussed it with an Italian doctor who suggested that I move from the popular science of Oliver Sacks to that of Stephen Jay Gould, namely his Mismeasure of Man (1981) which introduced me to the theory and practice of 19th century ‘scientific racism’ which became the basis of the first part of the opera Vital Statistics, commissioned by the Endymion Ensemble for performance at the Donmar Warehouse in 1987. The text was written by Victoria Hardie with set design by Paul Richards.

If Facing Goya is marginally a ‘continuation’ of The Kiss, then it is directly a ‘grand opera’ reincarnation of Vital Statistics. Over a period of more than a decade Facing Goya accumulated and often rejected a vast range of ideas which seemed relevant and pertinent even though an opera was not necessarily the best container for such diverse issues as Aboriginal land rights, the Bosnian war, football, the reconstruction of human faces from skulls, and the Jewish (supposed) monodic tradition of composition which, in the hands of Schoenberg, was considered by racist critics to have betrayed the German harmonic tradition. (Discussed brilliantly by Alexander L. Ringer in Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew, 1990).

But at some point, Goya himself wandered into these debates about race, class, criminality, eugenics, Aryanism, DNA, cloning, thanks to an article in the Financial Times which revealed that when Goya’s coffin was opened it was found that his skull was missing. This (again chance) discovery helped to define and give some purpose to all this scientific speculation by providing Victoria Hardie and me with a potential narrative thread on which to hang our ‘research material’. The skulls were already being measured in Vital Statistics, and there seemed no reason why Goya’s should not be amongst them.

And as I show in my liner notes to The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (CBS) certain other accidents do seem to validate, or I interpret them as validating, certain bizarre choices of operatic subject matter. In the case of Facing Goya these relate to films for which I have composed the soundtrack - in Volker Schl?ndorff’s Der Unhold (The Ogre, 1996) there is a chilling scene where a young schoolboy has his facial features measured to determine whether he was a pure Aryan or a member of an ‘inferior’ race. And, selfevidently, Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1999), which has a concluding title card “There is no gene for the human spirit”, and deals with designer babies and a genetic underclass, happened to synchronise completely with our preoccupations with Facing Goya and having created the ‘musical language’ of the genome, there seemed no reason not to refer to this language at appropiate points in the opera.

Michael Nyman


The opera is in four acts. It dramatises the various attempts, in the past and the present, to measure, isolate and then to own the power of artistic genius. It sets the context for such attempts in the real world of theories and practices which differentiate between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races, and in the making of a scientific object where there was once a living subject. Act 4 conveys ways in which such objectification and precise measuring and tracking lead to commercial corruption. Cloned artists could never be more than shadows of invention. The world should world remain determined by chance and true feeling rather than planned exploitation and scientific selfadvancement.

The opera is made up of various scenes where history and science is re- written. Thus the individual voices - two sopranos, tenor and baritone - are attached to different characters who change over historical time. However, some of their thoughts and opinions -indifference, scepticism, ambition, love and guilt - remain constant throughout the opera.

In present- day London, an Art Banker sits at her desk speaking into a dictaphone. She tells us of her search through the scientific worlds from the 19th century to the 21st century for Goya’s missing skull.

In Bordeaux, where Goya died in 1828, the Art Banker visits the cemetery where he was buried. She has a strange but powerful wish to find the artist’s skull which was found to be missing when his coffin was opened, and reunite it with his body. She finds the skull and hides it under her coat. The skull is the object and symbol which defines the narrative of the opera.

The Art Banker becomes aware of professional scientific interest in skulls. Skulls have craniometrical qualities: it was believed that their measurements could predict character and ability. Her discovery of 19th century scientists’ aims and ambitions begins to change her motivation. The simple idea of uniting Goya with himself is corrupted by the possibility of making commercial gain from the skull. This becomes even more of a quandary during a dispute between some of the scientists as to whether weighing brains and measuring skulls has any validity. The argument itself is a rich and often hilarious series of competing scientific claims. Importantly, one of the voices added to the argument is that of the baritone, who in Act 4 re-appears as Goya himself. From time to time, the Art Banker takes on the words and indeed prophecies of the dead artist. Act 1 ends with an attempt by one of the craniometrists to break open the skull. This fails in a frightening way, a failure that will have later implications.

In Act 2, the world is that of the 1930s and the scientific activity is bolder and darker. Skulls are now evidence of degenerate heredity, internal taint and of the need to breed selectively. The debate continues amongst the art critics, eugenicists and doctors, but with more pronounced scientific, political and emotional zeal. As before, the Art Banker wishes to defend the existence of Goya’s skull and keep it safe from being branded ‘degenerate’.

In Act 3 we find ourselves in the 1980s equivalent: the world of biotech and genetics labs. The human genome is now on the point of being decoded and the argument is conducted as a fight between commercial profit and public ownership. Academics and research scientists dispute with the Art Banker and the business executives. One such executive wants to patent Goya’s DNA which has been extracted from the exhumed skeleton of the artist. Since the DNA is the Art Banker’s to give, after a brief moment of doubt but not without an internal struggle, she makes her decision. She loves Goya’s work, but also feels driven to uncover the mystery of his genius by producing Goya. Her motivation is as emotional as it is scientific. The corruptibility which was hinted at earlier in her differing historical locations, is now complete. She sells the patent to the laboratory, certain that her bank will profit from the sale.

By exposing the Art Banker and Bio -Tech lab’s corruption, Goya himself becomes the next subject of the opera. The Bio -Tech lab has not considered that Goya would appear in person to make his convictions known. He visits the Art Banker in her office, wearing a hat with lit candles in metal supports around the brim. Finally the Art Banker meets and is enchanted by her hero. Goya’s flirtatious charm seduces her and lulls her into a false sense of security. He turns on her, insisting that they visit the Bio -Tech lab together so he can reclaim his DNA phial. Why should he be the only artist to be cloned, he demands. He is soon found to be a loose cannon by the Chief Executive of a bio - tech company, the Microbiologist, the Research Academic, and the Genetic Counsellor as they argue about the ownership of his DNA phial. Goya is enraged. He accuses them of wanting to tear his soul from his body. There is no way he will allow any laboratory to clone him. How can they be so stupid as to believe they will ever be able to identify and extract a ‘talent gene’ in the future? Clones can only ever be the shadows of invention. The Research Academic and the Genetic Counsellor sympathise with Goya but the Microbiologist and Chief Executive ridicule him. They then leave.

The Art Banker faces Goya alone. At her office Goya harangues her again but by this time she has regretted her decision to sell the patent. She has lost control of Goya. He chastises her: bankers are about greed, he insists. How dare she expect him to give answers about who we are and where we belong? He doesn’t want to be anyone’s hero. Be your own hero, he orders: our individuality is a victory over planning, racism and eugenics. Mortified, she pleads with him to understand her. Angrily, she explains that her love of money does not discount her love for art. She takes Goya’s skull from the plinth and challenges him to smash it. However, he is only human. He has faced us. Can he now destroy his own skull? The Art Banker smashes it. Her search for the skull has ended in disillusionment with her hero. He holds no answers. Lit by the candles around the brim of his hat, Goya, now alone, goes down on his hands and knees to gather up the fragments of his smashed skull.

Music by Michael Nyman - Libretto by Victoria Hardie

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