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Inside the Bold, Haunting Opera Inspired by Kurt Cobain

The official title of the opera making its U.S. premiere next week is Last Days. But Matt Copson, who co-directed it and also wrote its libretto, knows everyone will call it something else: the Kurt Cobain opera.

“That’s fine,” Copson says, “I’m up for that. It’s not about that, of course. But that’s an interesting entryway into the whole thing.”

In a somber reminder of how time flies, this April marks the 30th anniversary of Cobain’s death. It’s too soon to say how that day will be commemorated, although Nirvana fans online are already discussing a pilgrimage to a Cobain-related site in Seattle. But in a coincidental bit of timing, Last Days, billed as “an artistic interpretation of the late, great, Kurt Cobain’s last days before his tragic suicide,” will finally be seen and heard by American audiences this year, in more ways than one.

The 90-minute work, first presented at London’s prestigious Royal Opera House in the fall of 2022, will have a one-time performance next week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. An album of its score will arrive in April. Future performances are being planned around the country. And later in the year, Copson is hoping to film the show on a proper soundstage for a movie version, likely to arrive in 2025.

Based on the 2005 Gus Van Sant film of the same name — in which a character named Blake, based on Cobain, roams his home in the days leading up to his suicide — Last Days the show is not a rock opera like, say, the Who’s Tommy. It’s an actual opera, showing the Cobain-like character in his house, often clad in a green fur coat a la Cobain, as he deals with obnoxious visitors, a delivery person trying to leave a package, and a manager, who periodically calls with business demands. Dressed in black, a groundskeeper, modeled after the one who found Cobain, serves as what Copson calls “a Hades-like figure.”

Camilla Greenwell*

“This sounds slightly insensitive, but it’s the most operatic thing ever,” says experimental composer Oliver Leith, who wrote the music. “The suicide is part of myth and legend, and all those mundane things that happen, like him answering the door or cleaning up or telling someone to come back in a couple days, take on a different weight.”

The unconventional aspects of Last Days don’t end there. Everyone in the cast sings Leith’s score — in operatic English — except for Blake, who is silent throughout the entire show. “It felt very exciting to me to have an opera with a lead who doesn’t sing,” says Copson, who co-directed the piece with Anna Morrissey. “There’s something inherently absurd about opera singing. I liked the idea of this character being alienated. The character is running away from these people who literally sound like they want to speak another language.”

Oh, and one other thing: This time, Blake is played by a woman — French actress and writer Agathe Rousselle.

Nearly 20 years after its initial release, Van Sant’s film remains an unusual part of Nirvana’s pop-culture legacy. Van Sant tells RS he was in Canada, shooting his 1995 dark comedy To Die For with Nicole Kidman, when he first heard the news of Cobain’s tragic death. “It wasn’t until I got back home to Portland that I sort of processed it,” he says. “The news was still very fresh and people were writing about him in lots of publications. There were a lot of interpretations of what he was going through and a lot of psychoanalysis.” He considered making a doc on Cobain, but changed his mind (reportedly so as not to rattle Courtney Love). “At that moment, documentaries had become more fictional and dramatic pieces had become more factual,” he says, “so I thought that was the place for the film.”

At first, Van Sant hired a 14-year-old actor to play Cobain. “That’s where I thought his mind was at [when he died],” he says. The project stalled, but the movie, starring Michael Pitt in the role of Blake, was finally completed and released in 2005, to a range of reactions. “I knew that it was sort of challenging for an ordinary audience, but I love it,” Van Sant says. “The reaction was both positive and negative. But I didn’t read about it or read the reviews.”

When Copson and Leith decided to work together on a project just before the lockdown, they fixated on the idea of something based in a house — or “a house as a singing thing,” Leith says. Along those lines, they entertained an opera based on Beauty and the Beast, but soon turned their attention to Last Days, where even doorbell chimes could add to the musicality. Although both men weren’t even in kindergarten yet when Cobain died, they were each fascinated with the movie and the Cobain legend; on his bedroom wall, Copson had a poster of Mark Seliger’s iconic shot of Cobain and dolls’ heads. Recalling Van Sant’s movie, Copson says, “It felt very operatic and theatrical, and I could immediately imagine it in a staged environment. So we thought, ‘Why not take this and adapt it further?’”

After settling on the idea, Copson and Leith reached out to Van Sant, who gave his approval once HBO Films, which released the film, also signed off. “I thought of it as a small project,” Van Sant says bemusedly. “I didn’t think it was going to as big as it turned out.”

As Copson and Leith began working on the opera, casting a woman in the lead role was among their first thoughts. “I was more interested in the symbol and archetype of this character, and the glasses and blonde hair alone would give you an ‘in’ on that,” Copson says. “That was the more interesting element, rather than some Hollywood-style thing of putting on a prosthetic nose, like in the Bernstein movie, and having a fake version of authenticity.”

They found the right actor in Rousselle, who’s been a Nirvana head since her teenage years in France. Rousselle remembers one of “the popular girls” in her school slagging her as a “weirdo” and throwing a copy of Nevermind at her, saying, “You’re a piece of shit. You would listen to something like this.” Rousselle did, and became infatuated with Nirvana and Cobain. Says Rousselle now, “I thank her every day.”

Rousselle — whom audiences got to know when she starred in 2021’s serial-killer horror film Titane — was also an admirer of Van Sant’s polarizing film. “I liked that it was an unusual approach,” she says. “Gus never pretended he knew what happened, but it was his take on what could have happened that day. It’s not a movie about Kurt Cobain or Nirvana. There are no Nirvana songs. It’s the last days of a rock star. It’s about mental health and fame.” When she was invited to audition for the opera, she says, “I was intrigued. And I was very happy it was not Nirvana: The Musical.”

As far as other rules for the show, the creators say they decided to have a shotgun as an onstage prop, but it wouldn’t be heard discharging to indicate the character’s death. “We don’t need that,” Leith says. “There’s something about gunshots on stage that is just horrific. So that was one of the first things: Don’t make a sound.”

Musically speaking, the only hint of Nineties alt-rock arrives when Blake sits down and idly strums an electric guitar and hums for a few minutes. “It’s what I would describe as grunge mode, those three minutes,” Leith says. “That’s my little onstage tribute to Nirvana.” (Blake is also seen listening to an operatic recording sung by Caroline Polachek, who happens to be partners with Copson.)

Kurt Cobain in 1992.

Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Last Days received a largely positive response when it premiered in London in October 2022. Van Sant himself made it there in time for the last performance. “I didn’t really have expectations,” he says. “But it was better than I thought it would be. It was amazing what they did. The way they used the theater, with the environment and the colors, reminded me of some things in the film. The long green jacket was a good touch.”

Not everyone was happy. In the Daily Mail in 2022, an unnamed representative for the Nirvana camp was quoted lambasting the show, writing, “This show has been created and written without the permission or input of the Cobain estate. Sadly, it is an unauthorized attempt that seeks to profit and benefit from a brief meeting that took place 30 years ago.” For his part, Copson — who only had to receive permission to remake the film — says he’s had no contact with that estate, positive or negative: “I have no idea about that, that side of things,” he says. (Through a rep, Courtney Love declined to comment for RS.)

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If all goes as planned, Copson hopes to have the movie version of the opera ready for film festivals at year’s end. Although the creators didn’t intend if that way, that scenario would make a Last Days movie part of a new trend — a movie that’s turned into a theatrical production, which in turn is filmed for … another movie. “It’s just like Mean Girls,” Copson says with a laugh when that comparison is brought up. “The masculine Mean Girls.”

More somberly, Copson adds, “Obviously, I’m not approaching this from the most commercially capitalist mindset. To take these things and twist them into different forms, particularly when dealing with this big archetype at the center of it, is just really interesting.”

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