Ten Minutes with Jonathan Mann

Ten Minutes with Jonathan Mann

By - Posted May 25, 2005

Musician Jonathan Mann has quite possibly blazed a new trail in the fine arts: composing the first opera based on a video game. With The Mario Opera, Mann has adapted the simple tale of an Italian plumber into an epic melodrama about a hero who rescues his lady love. Although he’s only completed and performed the first act of this three-act opera, he plans to finish writing the other two acts soon, and will produce the opera in full next year. How does one turn an 8-bit masterpiece into a stage production? Here’s what he had to say:

Why did you feel that Super Mario would make for a good opera?
Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) made the observation that there are certain key themes in mythology that show up across all cultures and all times. When I was in a production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo two years ago, I saw the potential to use Mario as a retelling of the classic story for our generation: A hero sets out on a journey to save the woman he loves. He endures increasingly difficult hardships and eventually must dive into the depths of Hell to complete his quest.

In order to enjoy an opera, you have to know the story before you enter the theatre. You're not attending the show to be told a new story; you're hoping to see a story you already know retold in a beautiful and dramatic way. Because I (and my generation) generally know very little about Greek mythology, it made sense to create an opera that used a story that we already know, with characters we're familiar with. In other words, an opera for the rest of us.

Had you ever written an opera before?

This is my second rock opera. In 2002, my good friend, Thomas Hughes, and I co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Last Nympho Leprechaun while we were in undergraduate school at Bennington College.

As far as I know this is the first video game opera. I do hope it inspires other people to do other similar things.

How did you go about adapting the Mario backstory to make it work as an opera?

I started with the idea of Mario in Brooklyn as a simple, lonely plumber who always somehow felt that he was meant for more in life. One day when working on a tough job in a basement, he hears the voice of Princess Peach from down a pipe. He crawls in and the rest is history.

In the first act we see Mario and Peach at their wedding then Bowser kidnaps Peach, and Mario is utterly confused about where he is and what he's supposed to do. He doesn't yet realize that he's "Mario." The rest of the first act is Mario becoming aware that he's been through this very same "Princess-saving" experience trillions of times. At first this realization is empowering, but all at once it turns into an existential crisis, and Mario is defeated by the knowledge that he's doomed to repeat the same motions over and over and over and over. In the last song he faces Magikoopa (who I call the Lizard Wizard), and he dies.

The second and third act will explore in more detail Mario's identity crisis and how he deals with it. It will also bring more depth to the Princess, Bowser, and will introduce Luigi, who makes for an interesting addition: the idea that (in the original Super Mario Bros.) Luigi can only exist when Mario is dead.

In other words, I'm trying to take the basic story and turn it on its head.

How did you get the opera produced?
It was produced at California Institute of the Arts, in Santa Clarita, CA, where I just completed my first year of the Master's program in writing.

I fleshed out the concept and the story over the course of my first three months at school. Over Christmas break, I wrote most of the nine songs in the first act. I put up signs around school looking for actors, singers, designers (set, costume, lighting, etc), and musicians. It was a long, slow process, but eventually I got together a five-piece rock band, a 14 person cast, and some great costume, set and lighting designers. I got a great co-director, Jeremy Schwartz. I also raised about $1,300. Then, within the last few weeks of school, we put it all together and put up the show. It was a lot of pressure, and there were a lot of roadblocks. We were relocated to different spaces a number of times; we had trouble getting wireless mics. But, mostly out of sheer will power, we pulled it off. I'm looking forward to writing and producing the rest of it.

What kind of audience reactions did you get?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been several people who have said that it really touched them, which makes me feel great. A few of my teachers simply did not "get it." I think there's something to be said here about people who grew up playing video games versus those who didn't. This speaks to our generation, the power that sets us apart from our parents. This opera is in many ways a celebration of that difference.

Has Nintendo ever contacted you about it?

No, and honestly I'm quite worried about this. I don't want them to send me a "cease and desist" order, or worse, try and sue me. On the other hand, if they knew how much faith I have in their company, and specifically Shigeru Miyamoto (I'm a total fan boy till the end), they'd see that perhaps this opera is a great marketing tool. Judging by the news that the Revolution will download classic games, they know that there is a huge market for nostalgia. Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion and it's one of the driving forces behind my producing this opera. The memories of being 5 years old and finding the warp zone in level 1-2 are overpowering, wonderful, warm memories. If anyone from Nintendo is reading this: Please! Don't sue me! Let's work together!

Do you have any plans to create other video game-based operas?
After finishing the second and third acts and seeing where it goes, yes, I'd like to try. I'm a songwriter, performer, and recording artist first and foremost. Video games are also a huge part of my life. It's natural for me to bring the two together.

I love bands like The Minibosses and The Advantage who take classic gaming songs and play them with real instruments. Then there's the whole 8-bit gameboy music-making movement, which I think is also really cool. And there's also bands like Totally Radd!! or the 14-Year-Old Girls who make songs about video games. All of this is very exiting to me.

Making an opera, or even just a cohesive album of songs using classic game music as the basis is what really interests me. As a songwriter, it's a great challenge to tell a story through lyrics and melody. Megaman, Metroid and Zelda could all be great operas. I also hope that other people will start writing cohesive story driven songs about their favorite video games. I want this to become a new genre.

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