In sync: Fort Greene artists create opera about Milli Vanilli

Girl, they know it’s true: Christian Hawkey (left), Joe Diebes, and David Levine are the artists behind “Wow,” a Milli Vanilli-inspired opera running at BRIC this month.
Photo by Andrew Federman

The story of Milli Vanilli is a drama ripe for operatic treatment — and this month, it will get one.

“WOW,” a new opera being workshopped at BRIC House in Fort Greene, examines the rise and fall of the late 1980s German pop act, best known for the lip-syncing scandal that cost the duo a Grammy Award and made it an international punch line.

The creators of the show are not looking for cheap laughs, however. Fort Greene residents Joe Diebes, Christian Hawkey, and David Levine say they want to explore the forces behind Milli Vanilli’s tragic fall — such as society’s obsession with authenticity, the failure of technology, and corporate greed.

“I remember feeling at the time when the scandal broke that they had been wronged,” said librettist Hawkey, a poet who teaches at Pratt Institute. “That they were probably victims of a larger corporate system that gobbled them up and spit them out.”

Milli Vanilli, comprised of members Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, was a popular platinum-selling duo, until it was revealed that the two were not actually the same voices on their albums and were lip-syncing during live performances — including one infamous occasion where the recording of their singing began to skip. True to form, Hawkey’s libretto, like Milli Vanilli’s singing, is borrowed.

“In solidarity with Rob and Fab, all of my text is lifted, plagiarized, or appropriated from other sources,” said Hawkey. These sources include interviews with the singers, as well as YouTube comments on Milli Vanilli videos. The multi-layered name of the opera is also inspired in part by the comments section, where viewers would frequently write “wow” in response to the group’s story.

Milli Vanilli is best known for such hits as “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It On The Rain,” but don’t expect to hear any of them in “WOW.” Diebes’ score is a deconstruction of Wagner’s “Der Meistersinger von Nurenberg,” which will be fed to the singers and orchestra live on video monitors, making for a new show each night. Levine’s staging is inspired by the act’s music videos.

Milli Vanilli may go down in music history as the first lip-syncing scandal of our time, but Hawkey said he also wants to honor the positive aspects of the duo’s brief moment in the spotlight.

“They had an extraordinary amount of charisma and were able to create an act that was totally singular,” said Hawkey. “There was a level of choreography and even costume that was just utterly fantastic. I love shoulder pads, and they knew how to rock them.”

“WOW” at BRIC House [647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 683–5600, www.bricartsmedia.org], Jan. 24–Feb. 1, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm. $18, $15 in advance.

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