Last night I attended the opening-night performance of the world premier of Oscar; an opera based on the life of Irish writer, aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. It was an evening to remember.
The performance appeared to be sold out; 2200+ in attendance. The Santa Fe Opera audiences are an eclectic mix for any performance. Some people attend very well dressed as one might expect for an opera performance. Others come very casually dressed as befits an evening that may start with ‘tailgating’ in the parking lot or picnicking on the grounds. Last night’s performance, being a special event, there were more than the usual number of tuxedos and gowns. There is another factor affecting the tuxedo count. Without delving too deeply into stereotypes; while it is not unusual to encounter one of “nature’s bachelors” at the opera, last night, because of the event and the subject matter, it looked like the Human Rights Campaign Fund dinner…. or a really well-dressed tea dance. (You couldn’t swing a beaded bag without hitting a friend of Dorothy!) I confess that is part of the reason it was such a pleasant evening. There was no ‘Red Carpet’ but it was big event with guests from all over the world, including Wilde’s grandson.
This is the second time I’ve attended the opening night performance of an opera’s world premier. In 1999, Harper’s Other Dad and I saw the premier of William Bolcom’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. Mr. Miller, who wrote the libretto as well as the original play, joined the cast and composer on stage during the curtain call. I wish I’d been able to meet him. Aside from being a brilliant playwright and one of the defining figures of 20th-century American theater, imagine the ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ potential of meeting Marilyn Monroe’s ex-husband. But I digress.
Oscar was composed by Theodore Morrison, his first opera, with a libretto by the composer and John Cox. The opera was written for countertenor David Daniels who sang the title role. No one at the pre-performance discussion could recall another contemporary opera where the lead is a countertenor. The opera is a co-production with Opera Philadelphia where it will be staged in 2015.
Morrison and Daniels knew each other at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where Morrison is in the faculty and Daniels studied. The libretto is not adapted from another work but, rather, crafted from Wilde’s writings and the writings of his friends and contemporaries. The opera took 9 years to develop, in part because it was done without a commission or committed publisher.
The opera covers the period in Wilde’s life between 1895; the beginning of the series of legal battles that would result in his conviction and imprisonment on the charge of “gross indecency”; and his release from prison in 1897. An epilogue is set in 1900, at the time of Wilde’s death. The decision to focus on this time period is important because, while highly dramatic, and therefore operatic, it limits the opportunity to include much of the wit for which Wilde continues to be famous.
The opera opens with Wilde suffering the effects of having been publicly labeled a sodomite. Act I ends with his conviction. Act II is set mostly in prison and ends just after his release. The composer is quoted as saying he wanted to depict Wilde, not as a victim, but as a heroic figure who showed courage in the face of oppression. I think he succeeds as much as historical events allow. The two are not mutually exclusive. If Wilde’s story proves anything it is that one can be a victim and still show courage in the face of oppression.
The opera is very modern in feel and yet unlike many modern operas. The music is tonal and melodic. The arrangements feel, at times, romantic. 20th century musical influences are clearly heard in the score. Almost all the vocals are recitative. I don’t recall any significant arias, duets or trios. As such, I am not sure how likely the opera will see much life on the concert stage. I’m not sure, even how well it would translate to an opera recording.
Dramatically, the production is modern and edgy. Wilde’s trial is depicted as a farcical meeting of toys; the judge cast as a jack-in-the-box. Lord Douglas, Wilde’s “Bosie”, does not have a singing role in the opera but is portrayed by a dancer in various incarnations throughout; at one point appearing as himself, the young and beautiful object of Wilde’s affection in Wilde’s prison fantasy; later appearing as ‘Death” in a highly stylized modern dance sequence leading to an execution by hanging. After his release, Wilde wrote about this execution in his poem; “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.
The set is startlingly effective. It is unusual for Santa Fe in that it is basically a ‘box’ set; albeit it a every elaborate one. One of the unique features of the Santa Fe Opera house is the open stage that allows the audience to see through the production to the New Mexico landscape beyond. I don’t recall another production using a set that included a back wall that obstructed the view. In this case, however, it was effective. It would have diminished the visual impact of the horrendously oppressive conditions in the prison if there were a red-rock sunset shining through.
The narrative is linear and easy to follow. American poet Walt Whitman is a character in the opera. Whitman and Wilde met during Wilde’s visit to North America in 1882. Whitman died in 1892; he did not live to see Wilde’s trials but he acts as narrator and, at times, a kind of Greek chorus.
My opera companions and I shared an interesting discussion about why the role of Oscar Wilde would be written for a countertenor. It is reported that Wilde’s speaking voice was fairly high so that may have been a factor. Also, the project started with Morrison’s desire to write an opera for Daniels. The decision to make the opera about Wilde came afterward. Mr. Daniels is a world-class talent and his performance was wonderful. He should be proud that he was able to use his clout in the opera world to bring this project to fruition.