By Richard P. Townsend
Opera as vehicle for social justice. While this may not be something that occurs to us when attending an evening at the theatre, there are occasional, powerful examples such as Philip Glass’ Satyagraha or John Adam’s recent The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It was quite apparent by the remarks of the creative team and cast for Theodore Morrison’s new work—Oscar—that they intend it to join that company. Oscar is being given its world premiere performances at the Santa Fe Opera.
Santa Fe is renowned for its commitment to new or recent operatic works, having been responsible for presenting—first or early-on—operas by Strauss, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Henze, Saariaho, Adès, and numerous others (not to mention its revival and American premieres of historical pieces). In this, Santa Fe Opera is absolutely indispensable to the cultural world, especially in the risk-averse United States. Oscar’s premiere on the 27th July (heard that evening) had a real sense of occasion. Based on Oscar Wilde’s lawsuit and trial against the 9th Marquess of Queensberry for libel, his sentence of “gross indecency” as a “sodomite” and his subsequent imprisonment and death, the world premiere took place—as noted by the composer, the librettist famed opera director John Cox, and director Kevin Newbury—amidst the past month’s civil rights advances. The Queen had signed Parliament’s legislation legalizing marriage equality in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Supreme Court in effect ruled in favor of same-sex marriages in two cases several weeks prior. The emotional evening had those of us attending practically in tears, listening to Morrison’s impassioned words for tolerance and equal treatment of gays while Merlin Holland—Wilde’s only grandson—in deeply eloquent statements throughout the opening weekend, celebrated not only the vindication of his grandfather’s reputation but by extension, those of Wilde’s fellow travelers both past and present.
It is the music that concerns us first with a new work. Morrison—who is a choral and orchestral composer, conductor, vocal coach and teacher—has produced a highly accessible, if somewhat conservative, score; one which is beautifully orchestrated with great color. The opera exists somewhere between the mid-20th-century idiom of composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich and the cinematic (literally and otherwise) scores of Erich Korngold and Bernard Herrmann and that of the American musical theatre. Interestingly—and quite appropriately given the subject of Morrison’s opera—there is an indelible link to Benjamin Britten.
First, there are the stylistic overtones of Britten’s great dramas of the mid-20th century—especially of Peter Grimes—and then there appear to be several precise hommages to the master. There is the direct quotation, in Act I’s courtroom scene’s pronunciation of guilt, whereupon Wilde’s name is invoked in the same stentorian manner as Peter Grimes’ in the eponymous opera’s final scene of Act II. The same number of syllables, their names are pronounced at the moment of the unjust imposition of guilt. There is also Morrison’s nod to Britten in his assigning a dancer, rather than a singer, to act the role of Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas, the marquess’ son and Oscar’s younger lover), just as a dancer takes the role of Tadzio, the beloved of the older man, the writer Aschenbach in Britten’s 1973 setting of Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice. Surely Morrison wanted to invoke the “other”—always the real subject of Britten’s operas (and as written by a sexual outsider) –to describe the great writer/poet who—as an Irishman, as a learned man, and as a homosexual in 19th-century Britain—was himself representative of the “other.” Unfortunately, Morrison does not approach Britten’s ability to create great arcs of dramatic tension. Whether due to the composer or the librettist—or both—overall the work lacked dramatic propulsion.
The production is unstintingly lavish, attesting to Santa Fe’s—and co-producer Opera Philadelphia’s—complete support of this venture. Kevin Newbury directed. It was most effective in an early scene as Wilde—out on bail—searches for lodging, culminating in the chilling chorus with members of Victorian society arrayed around and above him, as they venomously sing out “Queer” and “Sodomite.” Finally he finds shelter with old friend Ada Leverson, where they are joined by another friend, Frank Harris. Bedding down in the children’s nursery, Oscar finds himself awake and back in court, receiving his sentence of two years hard labor. Here the nursery’s toys come alive. While panned by some critics, I thought the “kangaroo court” (or “monkey court” in this case) as staged by Newbury was terrific and gave much needed dramatic lift to the evening. Especially memorable was the jack-in-the-box martinet of a judge.
The second act concerns itself largely with Wilde’s incarceration. David Korins’ imposing unit set was a Victorian prison, replete with brick walls, cell doors, and barred catwalks from which the chorus enunciates. Smaller venues such as the hotel or the nursery were staged within the prison walls. The chapel scene, during which Wilde collapses, was sinister, but the subsequent execution scene of a convicted wife murderer—an actual historic event at Reading Gaol—comprising an extended dance sequence with Bosie dressed as Death, lacks in tension, abetted by Seán Curran’s uninteresting choreography. Wilde is released and goes into exile in France, where he dies in 1900. The opera closes with Walt Whitman—whom Wilde had met in America in the 1880s—welcoming his fellow poet in the pantheon of the immortals, the prison gangways filled with the greats of literature. I was disappointed by the finale. While I understood that this represented Morrison and Cox’s desire to formally immortalize Wilde as a tragic and misunderstood hero, it was much too facile an ending, the music overly dramatic.
The character of Walt Whitman frames the opera—here sung by Dwayne Croft—providing exposition. Croft’s fine baritone was rather wasted in this largely speaking role, and while the linkage of these two gay poets—again a rather political statement—was adept, in terms of the opera’s dramatic structure, seemed merely superfluous.
The cast is headed in the title role by David Daniels, today’s reigning counter-tenor. It was Daniels who suggested that Santa Fe produce his former vocal coach’s score and he sang Oscar with an ardent, heartfelt approach. Daniels’ voice was in excellent form, but regrettably he had no great set piece with which to show off his considerable vocal skills. (I had hoped for some wrenching, Bach-like aria with words from De Profundis—From the Depths—Wilde’s searing self-examination written while imprisoned.)
Daniels really inhabits the role, and as indicated earlier, the opera is as much political statement as it is music drama. This endeavor clearly meant a great deal to Morrison as a man of conscience and to Cox, Daniels and Newbury as openly gay men. Oscar becomes this vessel for equality and social justice. Accordingly we had what is I believe the first male-on-male romantic kiss in opera between Oscar and Bosie in this first operatic title role written about a gay man, for a gay man. It is an impressive step for humanity, as much a political stand today as was Wilde’s taking the stand in 1895 for being himself.
Wilde’s great friend Frank Harris—a writer, editor, journalist and publisher—was sung sympathetically by William Burden, whose performance was a highlight of the evening, given in a ringing, burnished tenor. Heidi Stober was charming as ever as Ada Leverson. Bosie was emotively danced by modern dancer, the handsome Reed Luplau.
For all of Wilde’s brilliance and brittle repartee, his was a great humanity—whether glimpsed in The Happy Prince or Dorian Grey—and further tempered by Reading Gaol. Oscar reveals to us this humanity—that he loved and was loved, was both ashamed and proud—as he holds up the mirror to all of us who read him. Given its powerful message, famous subject, relevance, beautifully crafted music and the present lavish production, Oscar may not only be importantly earnest, but have legs as well. Time will tell.