Dressed down and defiantly scruffy, with piercing blue eyes and an unkempt mop of hair, Ada Milea is no one’s idea of a typical chanteuse. Nor are her subjects the conventional ones: she has written musicals (for want of a better word) about Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gogol’s The Nose, and songs about anything from Ceausescu to insects to – a real life event in her home town – a medical student so intent on being the best in her class she stole bones for her studies from the local cemetery. ‘I have love songs,’ Milea says, ‘but nobody knows they’re love songs.’ Which ones? I ask. ‘I’m not telling you,’ she grins.
Ada Milea herself is Romania’s own best-kept secret, but one the wider world is slowly finding out about. She’s created a genre of her own – the acoustic concept album based on the classic novel or story, performed with one or two other singers sat on a setless stage – ‘I consider my work more theatre than music,’ she explains – and full of irony and tender tongue-in-cheek humour – ‘jokes that are more than jokes…. with sadness in them’. Her adaptation of Don Quixote (2004) is a passionately playful love-letter written back to the book, full of crazy humour, haunting melodies and lines that stick in the memory either for their fun (I’d rather be / A dying flea / Or a drunken bee / In a cup of tea) or their poignancy: ‘In Your comedy we’re born, but death is born with us… We are alive, but life is leaving us.’
It’s a world of unusual freedom in which a woman in a black polo-neck (Milea) can play Don Quixote, in which a sleek young man of more than moderate good looks can play the chubby Sancho Panza, and we accept all of it without question, probably because we suspect that both these characters – the deluded romantic Quixote, the power-starved, humiliated Sancho – are aspects of Ada Milea herself just as they’re aspects of us.
Some time ago Quixote and other works finally became available for purchase online, and in more than one language. Milea seems to relish the challenge of first adapting her favourite literature into musicals, and then the Romanian text into other languages too, almost completely rewriting the words and sometimes even the melody lines for other countries (her musical of the Romanian children’s book Apolodor, about the picaresque plight of a homesick penguin, is now available in Romanian, English and German versions, and the jokes are different in each). Her Quixote, delivered by herself and a few other artists on chairs at the front of the stage, has now been performed in numerous countries. It took, she said, 2 years to write, and a massive amount of work: ‘I realised I loved some books and I wanted to show them to other people, but I couldn’t read those books to others, so I made some small songs based on them…. I like to show that they are beautiful.’ The business of selecting and cutting has obviously been intense: Don Quixote, weighing in at 900 pages, is reduced to about 50 minutes of song. Could she have written a longer musical, I ask, given the freedom? No, she replies, ‘I like small things.’
Perhaps this love of small things is the key to understanding Milea’s work and attitude to life. Although she’s occasionally sung about the powerful and, as a Hungarian-Romanian growing up in Târgu Mureş, a town notable for ethnic strife, is no stranger to trouble, in her work and range of subjects she deliberately avoids grandiosity. In interview, though friendly enough, she seems uncomfortable talking about herself and much happier delivering songs, and declares that she hates watching herself on television. Whether or not this is true, the philosophy’s carried through in her music, which stresses humour over self-importance and is completely without pomposity. In her concert at the Leicester Square Theatre on June 8th, she sang her ‘small songs’ – some of them lasting less than a minute – about Ceaușescu, about love and childhood, extracts from ‘The Nose’ (complete with nose-singing) and a set of ‘Horror Carols’ about macabre Romanian ways of celebrating Christmas – often accompanied by Bogdan Burlăcianu, her longtime collaborator and comic foil – rabbity-faced and beanpole-tense as Milea is replete, cosy and faintly feline.
As with the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, whose work Milea’s music oddly seems to echo, it’s the sweetness and frailty of things she appears to celebrate, our endearing but endless capacity for humiliation and self-delusion. Onstage she’s perfectly willing to clown about – to imitate a monkey, mime throwing snot from her nose at us, and break off one song to give a quick – but deliberate – glance at her watch. Offered the ritual bunch of flowers at the end of her performance, she sidesteps away from them in comic horror. The audience laughs and claps but behind all these refusals to take herself too seriously one senses a deadly seriousness of purpose. For all Milea’s offstage shyness and reticence she doesn’t strike you as someone you would lightly upset, for her revenge – as with ‘Andreea’, her barnstorming send-up of the doomed romance between a Libyan boy and a nice Romanian girl – would be wounding in its accuracy – and lethally funny.
The Romanian audience in London is usually generous to its artists – something about a familiar face far from home – but on this occasion the standing ovation seems deserved. Ada Milea is one of art’s originals, and it’s an irony that in adapting these classic works of literature she’s steadily building a distinct world all of her own. Find Quixote and Apolodor online: you will probably want to tell people about them, to buy the first for your friends and the second for their children and then – realising the nonsense of such distinctions – buy everyone both. They are sweet, catchy, touching, funny – both innocent and knowing – and like nothing else. ‘This story’s supposed to be beautiful,’ go the opening lyrics on Quixote, ‘But it looks just like me.’ Fans old and new, in Romania or beyond, will be glad that it does.
Concert’n Londra with Ada Milea and Bobo Burlacianu was presented in London by the project “Tales Told in Romanian”, produced by Claudia Cirlig.
Ada Milea’s Apolodor and Quixote are available online for purchase online for £7.99 and £7.49 respectively, and can be accessed by clicking on the album covers above.