Lyrical liar: inside Sweden’s Macchiarini-inspired opera

The artistic team behind the unsettling production explain why they wanted to explore the psychology of the country’s biggest biomedical research scandal

October 25, 2023
Mythomania, Gothenburg Opera House
Source: Lennart Sjöberg

It’s unusual for Sweden’s national research misconduct board to block-book opera tickets, but given that they did it for a show about an unscrupulous celebrity surgeon, it’s perhaps not surprising.

Mythomania opened in Gothenburg this month. It follows the fortunes of Francis, a successful surgeon in a troubled marriage, whose seemingly groundbreaking research methods bring status and strife in both his personal and professional lives.

The opera is heavily inspired by the case of Paolo Macchiarini, a former surgeon at Karolinska University Hospital who was found guilty of bodily injury in June 2022 after transplanting plastic tracheas coated with stem cells into his patients despite dubious evidence of their efficacy. Several of his patients died.

“We all tell lies, so it’s very easy to identify both with being a liar and with receiving lies,” director Clara Svärd told Times Higher Education. Francis, who is having an affair with Nelly, his couples therapist, offers layers of deceit. “How the private and the official mirror each other is really important to the piece,” she added.

Paula af Malmborg Ward and Kerstin Perski, who wrote the music and the libretto, said the motif of deceit appears musically as “tonalities slipping around themselves” – unsettling quartertones – but that Francis also tries his magic on the audience.

“He also has these heroic passages where he bursts into marches or very firm hymns or something, like he’s manipulating the listener to believe in him because his music is so convincing,” said Ms Malmborg Ward.

The two had previously worked together on an opera called The Scar, an adaptation of Heart of a Dog, a novella by the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. It features a surgeon and a swindler, but they felt there was more to explore.

“We wanted to go into swindling: what it is and what it is psychologically. The psychology of lying and also the psychology of accepting lies,” said Ms Perski, who comes from a family of scientists. “I remember always my father saying that’s the biggest sin, actually – to act out of wishful thinking and not work step-by-step in this daily, grey work.”

Does she think we put too much faith in science and scientists? “Not in science. I think science is too much influenced by the capitalist society we live in: you have to come up with great things, you have to be successful, they have to work immediately,” she said.

All three sought to portray Francis as somewhat sympathetic, despite his deep flaws. “On a superficial level he’s very seductive. He opens his heart to people. He’s very likeable and he’s dangerous because he has such a strong need for being liked,” said Ms Svärd.

“Around a person like this there’s a sort-of void, there’s an emptiness and what fills that up is never told to anyone,” she added.

Mythomania runs at Gothenburg Opera House until 9 November.

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