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Photo: Peter Manninger
Graz Opera 2003

Neuwirth, Olga

Lost Highway (2002/03)

Duration: 95 minutes
Music theatre

Libretto by Elfriede Jelinek and Olga Neuwirth, based on the film 'Lost Highway' by David Lynch and Barry Gifford (E)

5 singers, 6 actors; 6 instrumental soloists: sax(S,T,Bar)-cl(=bcl,dbcl)-trbn(A,T,B)-elec.git(=Hawaii git)-accordion-kbd(synth,elec.pft); 2(I,II=picc).1.2(I=Ebcl).1(=dbn)-1.2(I=picctpt).1.1-perc(2):I=glsp/SD/crot(set)/steel string/2gongs/2cowbells/sand bl(lg)/1timp/wooden bl(med)/BD/tom-t(med)/tgl(med)/wdbl/thunder sheet(thin)/wine glass/beer bottle/tam-t(lg)/1cym(med)/drum pad/stereo hand microphone; II=vib/SD/crot(set)/steel string/2gongs/2cowbells/sand bl(med)/1timp/wooden bl/chimes/BD/tom-t(lg)/tgl(sm)/wdbl/thunder sheet(thin)/tam-t(med)/cym(sm)/t.bells/stereo hand microphone-strings( electronics-tape/CD player; fl2,ob,cl2,bn also mouth org
Abbreviations (PDF)

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.

World Premiere
Helmut-List-Halle, Graz
Joachim Schlömer, director
Conductor: Johannes Kalitzke
Company: Klangforum Wien


PETEHigh Baritone
FREDActor (native laguage English)
Mr EDDY/DICK LAURENTSinger/Actor/Improvising musician (native language English; ideally David Moss)
MYSTERY MANCounter Tenor
ANDYCounter Tenor
Pete's motherActress, also singing
Pete's fatherActor, also singing
Guard, Detective LOU (small and corpulent)Actor, also singing
Doctor, the Man, Detective HANK (tall and slim)Actor, also singing
Director of prison, ARNIEActor, also singing


Lost Highway is based on David Lynch's famous film and tells the story of Fred Madison who becomes increasingly alienated from his own existence. Doubts about his wife's fidelity, about himself, and ultimately about their own true identity lead increasingly to obsessions and to a continuous loss of reality. Ominous videotapes and sinister figures appear and evoke the growing feeling of a horror scenario. Video and reality also intermingle when, finally, Fred, to his own surprise and fright, finds himself with bloody hands in front of his wife's dead body. He is arrested and sentenced for murder. In the death cell a mysterious transformation takes place: the saxophone player Fred Madison changes into a completely different person, the car mechanic Pete Dayton. The second part of this nightmare starts, with augmented speed, but is no less terrifying: like a perpetual whirl, from which no one can escape...

Press Quotes
"The score is enigmatic and labyrinthine, constantly morphing from one thing to the next. Ms. Neuwirth... knows how to bend and twist sound like no other." (Robert Hilferty, New York Times, 02 Nov 2003)

"A maddeningly complex source is distilled and clarified, and, in the process, something entirely new emerges. Neuwirth’s innovation comes with the psychological layers added by her wildly original sonic landscape… I am overwhelmed by its merits. Lost Highway entertains, challenges our perceptions of opera, and demands to be experienced." (Larry L Lash, Financial Times, 12 Nov 2003)

"A comparison with the original is unavoidable and legitimate. The result is not a free fantasy of elements and motives from the film, yet instead, a direct and astoundingly exact adaptation… Olga Neuwirth proves again that she can create congenial as well as complex emotional music using both computerised techniques and traditional orchestral sonorities."
(Michael Eidenbenz, Tagesanzeiger Zürich, 03 Nov 2003)

"When [the main character] Fred, plagued with furious headaches, embarks on a mutation in his prison cell and transforms into Pete, bodily language and electronically estranged language reach an intense symbiosis that allows music theatre to find its justification and identity… The musical narrative develops incredibly rich colours around a disconcerting basic mood, a low drone, that furthermore reminds us of the film… an ambiguous world into which jazz elements and even sparkling disco-riffs are fused in stylised fashion. Neuwirth puts here trust in overlaid material, multiple strata, nervous agitations – reinforced through tape recordings and computer-aided distortions of sound and voice."
(Ljubisa Tosic, Der Standard, 03 Nov 2003)

"Olga Neuwirth is one of the beacons of the avant-garde, continuing to take a stand against the current stultification of music… Her telling of Lynch’s story is richer in nuances and decidely more optimistic… a score worked through in masterly fashion." (Reinhard J. Brembeck, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 03 Nov 2003)

"Neuwirth has done more than adapt a movie: She has created an ode to an artwork... A jittery musician; a sadistic gangster; his platinum-wigged moll; a Mephistophelian lurker; an honest, blue-collar kid... Neuwirth leads you through a landscape of musical explosions and violent images... Her instrumental music creates a disorienting world of distantly familiar scraps that flit by like a city seen from a hurtling car." (Justin Davidson, New York Newsday, 26 Feb 2007)

"A deep, disturbing film has met its operatic match… One of the leading young-generation composers in Europe and one of the most fearless, Neuwirth finds what is really going on with these people. She adds texture and emotional activity... She has a way with electronics, and the score for Lost Highway is full of extraordinary acoustical effects.... Live instruments are used straight but also have their sounds manipulated in real time... The result is a rich mix and an invitation to many listenings." (Mark Sweg, Los Angeles Times, 10 Feb 2007)

"Lost Highway is based on the 1997 David Lynch film and endeavours to recreate the surreal, lurid, raunchy world of that psychological thriller. Fusing video, dialogue and music, both live (a 27-piece ensemble ably conducted by Baldur Brönnimann) and pre-recorded electronics, Neuwirth captures the menace lurking round every corner. The plot, weaving reality and fantasy, sometimes confuses the characters as much as the audience. The condition they are suffering from is described by Lynch as a “psychogenic fugue”: a state so traumatic that they assume another identity to escape. Diane Paulus’s production, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, locates the action either on a highway running right across the stage or in a glass-fronted apartment, its floors linked by a spiral staircase. Complementing this is the nightmarish video work of Philip Bussmann, its shapes and characters constantly morphing, projected on four screens above the audience seated in the round." (Barry Millington, Evening Standard. 07 Apr 2008)

Composer Notes
A"Waiting for Godot" of passion and closeness – A test arrangement about futility

Why adapt "Lost Highway" for music theatre? Months after having finished it, I am wondering this more than at the time I chose the subject.
Besides feeling personally touched, I was fascinated in the first place by the radical way in which Lynch and Grifford dealt with narration as a progressive series of events. The way people cannot escape from a situation, these merciless time warps, which can make you crazy once you get caught in them, were a fundamental compositional challenge. It was the dismantling of a voyeuristic view which overlooks and unifies everything. This different view, which points nowhere as it is a purely aesthetic device, inspired me to think about its possible musical implications. It is a view of something which cannot be expressed in words. This idea is something I feel very close to with regard to music, though not to life. I also found the different registers of the sound colours of language Lynch uses, from whispering to snorting with laughter, suitable for a kind of music theatre as I imagine it: no beginning, no middle, no end; countless inner and outer (architectural and mental) rooms; what is real and what is a phantom; the commonplace alongside the mystical; all human expression from crying to screaming, from laughter to desperation, co-exist. All that, as well as the "nihil firmum" and the existential, inevitable questioning of questionableness, of the basis of human existence, were crucial for my decision to tackle this unsettling subject.
Lynch’s immediately and rapidly changing visual and aural perspectives, and the ‘topic’ of metamorphosis (which I have already used in "Bählamm’s Fest" as a symbol for the attempt to break out of one’s own and external norms and the search for something new) as a change in life we desire and hope for, were – and still are – so close to me that it didn’t even occur to me in the first place that in my aural conception I would have to match a cinematic masterpiece. A masochistic lust for a downfall in which the alternative script of life proves a futile act, even a bad trip, as a musical drama? "Lost Highway": splintering, breaking and sinking; manifold negations, the coldness of which determine the aesthetic field of tension; the dimensions of a phantasm as hope; the power of costume, which itself leads to misunderstandings. Did I go to Trieste in order to work on this hopelessness, this "nuit sans fin", from beginning to end in peace and quiet, to work the disorder of my own existence into the piece as Umberto Saba did?

To avoid lapsing into mere representation on stage, following Bresson’s warning, it was clear from the start that I had to conceive music and video (the two forms of art which deal with time) simultaneously so that I would be able to match the famous film with a new arrangement of sound and image. Also, I didn’t want a conventional stage setting to inhibit the actors within a constantly changing space of sound and image.

Since Valie Export, an artist who I much admire, immediately came to mind when I started to work on the project, the idea of a ‘suture’ occurred to me, a ‘seam’ which serves to underline the difference between the image of what is happening on stage and the absence of imagery (in other words, the void) on screen – or vice versa, respectively – thus the difference between two forms of perception. The same applies to music played live and music played from a recording, which makes for a certain kind of continuity within heterogeneity. It is not a rigid system, however, since the ‘seam’ may come undone. It is only a method to overcome the menace, the seeming absence of the cause for the anxiety, the phantasm, with the help of the ‘seam’.

It may be a ‘trick’ to cover up the various layers (stage and actors ‘versus’ video projection, narrative fiction ‘versus’ non-narrative fiction, live ‘versus’ recorded material, objective ‘versus’ subjective) and thus to bridge the gap between the different elements. The ‘seam’ serves as a wild card for an apparently absent cause which creates a sense of the uncanny.

The method I’m interested in is to deconstruct images and sounds/music through a discourse of perception, therefore showing that these images and sounds follow a certain logic and can be manipulated. This may enable us to realise that the phantasms (one of the crucial topics of this piece of music theatre) have a history, or a core. The problem of images and sounds is that they have a metaphoric quality: they are densified complexes of imagination which provide a texture of sounds and images for an entire scenario of threat.

Since "Lost Highway" offers no hope from beginning to end, the video, together with the sound, is to form a constantly flickering space of sound and imagery.

Although there are not many instructions by the composer


Magic/Mystery, Society, Music/Arts

Recommended Recording
Vincent Crowly / Constance Hauman / David Moss / Georg Nigl / Andrew Watts / Klangforum Wien / Johannes Kalitzke
Kairos 0012542KAI


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