It’s rare, if not unheard of, for an opera to garner a flurry of mainstream press and attention in this, the year of our lord 2024. But artist Matt Copson and composer Oliver Leith have reinvigorated interest in the form with Last Days, their adaptation of Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film of the same name depicting a fictionalized Kurt Cobain-like figure’s last days before his suicide. The much-hyped production initially ran in London, where Copson and Leith live, in 2022, and now has come to the U.S., with a sold-out show on February 6th as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series. It is the first opera for both. “I’ve always thought that really passionate amateurism,” says Copson, “creates really good art.”
People in L.A. are quite excited about the Kurt Cobain opera. But it’s not really a Kurt Cobain opera.
Last Days of course references Cobain—the poster for the show even features his signature white sunglasses. But Van Sant’s film isn’t a straightforward biopic; it has little dialogue, and the Cobain stand-in, Michael Pitt’s Blake, mumbles and keeps his sunglasses on and his blonde hair shaken in front of his face, remaining unknowable. And the opera leans even further away from a standard depiction of the musician. This Blake, played by Titane’s Agathe Rousselle shuffling around the stage, appears as an archetype, a stand-in for the doomed musical idols our culture loves to build up and then tear down.
“There’s an inability to truly know another person,” says Copson, who serves as librettist, art director, and co-director with Anna Morrissey. “And I think that cuts at the core of the tragedy of idols to some degree.”
If God is dead, celebrity culture is very much alive—and then the celebrities themselves die, often young. It’s always percolating in our culture (another biopic about a genius member of the 27 Club, Amy Winehouse, hits theaters in May). And along with the grief, there comes the urge to lurk and look. Copson says he wants the production to have a “nasty sense of voyeurship,” while Leith notes that people will be there partially to see how Blake dies. “It’s really like a classic gladiator tragedy,” Leith says. “Come baying for blood, you know?”
The work is ominous. A haunting aria, sung by Copson’s partner and frequent collaborator Caroline Polachek, is titled “Non Voglio Mai Vedere il Sole Tramontare,” Italian for “I Never Want to See the Sun Go Down.” Copson describes Leith’s eerie music as a “tonal swamp” and “squirty” (his most-played song on Spotify is titled “Tongue in Ear”). The composer’s work for Last Days does not explicitly reference grunge—he worked very much within the style of opera, minus a four-minute bout of guitar. “I used to listen to a lot of grunge, but Nirvana is nowhere there,” he says.
Last Days features costumes by Balenciaga—the looks deconstructed in the way designer Demna likes to work. Copson purposefully chose to partner with a major fashion house; Cobain said he was anti-capitalist, but as Copson likes to note, the first frame of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video features a pair of Converse, one of the first instances of product placement in music videos. Against the backdrop of today, when no one blinks an eye at artists embarking on corporate partnerships, the collaboration felt like a wink.
“It’s a very purposeful decision because it immediately connects it to the contemporary,” Copson says of working with Balenciaga. “I am kind of fascinated by the idea that selling out completely disappeared into pure capitalist realism. And now it’s like, go girl, get that money.”
“If you look at all the original Kurt stuff, there’s the desire to be within the mainstream, to be on SNL and to destroy the guitar,” he adds. “I actually kind of agree with the method. The only way to disrupt would be from within—but it only disrupts for a moment. In the grander political sense, it’s not going to cause a revolution. But it might change the cultural imagination for a moment, which I think it did then.”
Beyond grappling with the opera’s larger themes, Copson and Leith—who were first introduced by mutual friend Danny L. Harle of PC Music (he regularly works with Polachek and produced “Non Voglio Mai Vedere il Sole Tramontare” with her)—were drawn to the mundanity of Last Days, in which they find “magic.” Throughout the show, Blake attempts to hide onstage in a set representing their ramshackle house, an effect magnified by the move to Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, built in amphitheater-style. Rousselle barely sings, silently tormented by other characters, like a delivery driver and a Mormon missionary, popping in and out.
Throughout the show, Rousselle’s Blake keeps his head down, silent as he receives calls from a manager type (recorded in the style of a fast-talking auctioneer), and knocks on the door from a therapist or sober coach of sorts, an obsessed fan, and demonic housemates. His house is falling apart, haphazard kitchen cabinet doors revealing rows of nothing but Lucky Charms. Copson’s backdrop, inspired by the Victorian-era painter John Martin, shows a landscape both fecund and hellish. But Blake does sing, a tiny bit. As a recording of Polachek’s Italian aria plays in the background, he strums a guitar, singing along in English. “I loved life so much,” he whispers. “I don’t want it to ever end.”