January 26, 2005

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Classical Music: Granite State Opera stages 'Oscar Wilde' workshop

Composer, librettist on hand for Act 1 run-through in Concord

By Jeff Rapsis  jrapsis@hippopress.com

Review: About 80 people recently attended that rarity-of-rarities in New Hampshire, a professional workshop performance of an opera-in-progress. The work? "Oscar Wilde," an operatic retelling of the notorious author's life by Boston-based composer Thomas Oboe Lee and lyricist Paul Hodes, a Concord attorney, musician, and 2006 candidate for U.S. Congress. (How's that for well-rounded?)

The opera's first act was performed by Granite State Opera on Sunday, Jan. 22 at Concord Community Music School. The semi-staged production featured a dozen singers led by Phil Lauriat, the company's artistic director, and piano accompaniment by Michelle Alexander.

Right off the bat, I have to say it's a thrill to hear a new work for the first time right here in New Hampshire. The composer and librettist should be congratulated for getting this far, as should Granite State Opera for embarking on a wildly impractical but totally essential endeavor— essential, that is, if opera is going to ever function as more than "museum" art in our times.

The work-in-progress has a lot of potential. Oscar Wilde's scandalous life is a worthy subject for operatic treatment. But it's not a slam-dunk: controversy (he served a prison term for homosexuality) and intellectual brilliance by themselves don't automatically translate into compelling drama.

As heard last Sunday, the in-progress "Oscar Wilde" opera is searching for something big beneath the surface details of the author's life, but seems unable to find it just yet.

Is it a personal drama that explores the interior landscape of the author's soul? Is it theater on a grand scale that uses the hypocrisy of a past age (Victorian England) to speak to universal themes? Is it about erotic love? Is it a light comedy of manners meant to evoke Wilde's surface brilliance as a wordsmith?

Is it all of those, or something else entirely? As Act One unfolded, it was hard to gauge.

Whatever the issues with "Oscar Wilde," it's not a matter of line-by-line craftsmanship. Composer Lee's music is clear, consistent, and self-assured in its simplicity. As heard in the piano/vocal working arrangements, it's immediately accessible and a pleasure to listen to.

After the performance, Lee said he was aiming not for grand opera, but something in the style of 19th century British composer Arthur Sullivan, whose work as half of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo formed the pop music of Wilde's Victorian era.

It's a clever conceit, and could be used to great effect to paint a musical picture of Wilde's times. For example: The idiom could be twisted in unexpected ways to underscore passion, terror, or other strong emotions that are opera's stock-in-trade.

But Lee's mostly diatonic music in "Oscar Wilde" sounded less like Sullivan and more like very well-crafted children's music, written in the style of a plain-spoken diatonic work such as Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.

As such, it didn't quite evoke the harmonic richness of Sullivan's theater music, which is often easy on the ears but his knack for jaunty melodies is buttressed by a confident use of tried-and-true chord progressions and conservative but rich harmony.

Even so, Lee's music gave life to the basic story. In some scenes, the vocal lines built to impressive heights of emotion, propelled by bouncy rhythms (some boom-chick, others sounding vaguely calypso or tango-like) that imparted a nice sense of motion but never competed with or covered the melodies.

At its best, as in the Scene 5 "Marital Bliss" sequence of Act One between Wilde and his wife Constance, Lee's music caught the essence of the emotion and gave voice to it very effectively.

The libretto by Hodes did the job for the most part, only occasionally descending into banal sing-song rhyming. Some parts worked, some parts didn't, such as this sung by a prostitute: "What I am selling is oh, so sweet, a tasty pastie of juicy meat." (And the internal rhyme fails if the British "pah-sty" pronunciation is used.)

Lee said after the performance that he asked Hodes for more rhyming couplets than are commonly found in an opera libretto (as opposed to musical theater lyrics), but if the intent was to create a glitteringly brilliant Gilbert & Sullivan-type atmosphere, there's still some polish to be applied.

Unfortunately, descriptions of Wilde's physical attraction to Bosie came across as clunky and at times jarring. Such material would perhaps work in a story devoted exclusively to erotic love, but in the current version it robs the focus from the other material. Once you bring up sex in the literal sense (as opposed to leaving the details to the imagination), it's hard to think about much else.

And this leads us to other problems—no pun intended, but conceptual problems—with "Oscar Wilde" that serve to diminish the effectiveness of the professionalism of the music and words.

What intrigues me about Wilde as a character—and what makes his life a compelling subject for opera, I think—is the passions that must have surged underneath his cool but brilliant exterior as a writer and wit and socialite.

What inspired such effortless eloquence? Egoism? Rebellion? Ambition? Insecurity? Was is tough for Wilde to face the knowledge that he could express himself so well, but this gift wasn't enough to save him from the machinations of others? Or didn't he care? if not, why? Perversely, was it his talent that caused others to work against him? If so, the tale takes on tragic significance— usually promising signs for an opera.

Alas, none of those issues were explored in Act I of "Oscar Wilde," which disappointed me. Why go to the trouble of creating an opera but not highlight the most potentially operatic material of all? Why not rescue Wilde from being lost among the pages of his now seldom-read works and revive him as a living, breathing, suffering, human being?

To me, the attraction is not the well-known quotes and quips and epigrams. It's what lies behind them. That's the story. That's the drama. That's the real opera.

What to do? To create a more effective opera—or at least one that works as a piece of theater—the authors might consider paring back the birth-to-death-life-in-its-fullness scale of the story, and perhaps focus on fleshing out a few choice turning points and developing just a handful of characters in more detail.

As staged in the workshop production, Act One is currently too much of a parade of characters who come and go with little chance to make an impression or contribute anything of value. An example is Scene 3's "Beauty is his genius" sequence, in which three women sing at length about how brilliant Oscar is. It's all tell and no show, and stops cold any forward motion of the story.

There's also the question of time and place. Little effort is made to provide a framework for the drama, and a potentially powerful element in binding the story together is lost.

On one level, it's simple courtesy to audiences: Victorian England—its conventions, mores, foibles, and hypocrisies—is a foreign country to most contemporary audiences. On another, getting more of a sense of period into the drama helps a context that can heighten the drama.

It doesn't have to be much, but a few well-chosen details or references would help ground the story in its era. By going deeper in the era, the authors might find it easier to reach the universal.

The question of stitching Wilde's well-known soundbites into the drama is a tough one. If too much effort is made to include them, they'd seem forced and get in the way of a fully realized character. But if they're left out (or, perhaps more subtlely, if they're included but in a way that no one would recognize them), audiences would feel cheated.

Lee and Hodes seem to have found a good balance, putting in a few nice ones at natural points in the story, and letting it go at that. If it's all heading to some revelation in the yet-uncompleted Act Two, that's not apparent.

The framing device of the narrative, with Wilde on his deathbed the entire time, is a solid one. Having the opera place between Wilde's last two breaths is a fine way to bound the action. Going forward, perhaps the key issue the creators should make is to decide what exactly needs to go on between the last two breaths.

It can't be everything, but that seems to be what they're striving for, and it seems a little much.

Though the production wasn't staged, it was intriguing to hear the composer and librettist articulate markedly different visions of what "Oscar Wilde" might look like. Separately, composer Lee spoke of the piece as more of a musical theater work rooted in the traditions of Victorian England, while Hodes talked of French symbolist poetry and staging the opera to mimic scenes from famous French impressionist paintings.

Both interesting ideas, but seemingly not very compatible. And these differing approaches may be a symptomatic of the problems of "Oscar Wilde" in its current state. Composer and author would do well to get down to brass tacks and decide exactly what the purpose of all this good work is.

There's still time to rework the masonry before the cement hardens. To accomplish that, the collaboration would benefit from revisiting the basic aims of the project and how best to accomplish them on stage.

Performances were a treat. Led by baritone David Kravitz in the title role, the cast did the new music ample justice, especially considering that only a handful of rehearsals were possible. (If anything, this may have enlivened things a little.) Kravitz was in fine voice, showing a great sense of stage presence in knowing when to hold back and when to let loose.

The only part that fell flat was Kravitz using falsetto to sing the brief part of Oscar as a young boy. It was done with some sensitivity, but couldn't help but come across as burlesque, whatever its intended effect.

As Oscar's wife Constance, soprano Molly Jo Bessey-Rivelli attacked the part as if it were a much juicier role than it currently is; as Wilde's male lover Bosie, tenor Brent Wilson took an equally red-blooded approach, which came across as more appropriate for his material.

Smaller roles were given life by an ensemble of some of the region's best singers. Bass Mark Andrew Cleveland had fun creating the character of Wilde's nemesis, the Marquis of Queensbury, while mezzo Janice Edwards was in full bloom in Scene 2 as Oscar's mother Speranza.

Tenor Matt Van Wagner was a crackling James Whistler in a fast-paced exchange with Wilde in Scene 4, while the remainder of the cast (Charles Lindsay, John Spring, Daniel Kamalic, Megan Sharp, Janet Poisson, and Ellen Nordstrom Baer) sang a variety of minor roles with conviction and attention to detail, with some even courageously attempting British accents.

Overall, it was a rare and rewarding chance to hear a new opera in progress. Let's hope it gave the creators of "Oscar Wilde" some useful impression as well as the encouragement needed to go forward and bring the project to completion.

But for the piece to be as effective as possible, the authors need to look at what they're trying to accomplish and find a more specific focus, if for no other reason than to jack up the level of the drama. Unless Act Two harbors some really stunning confrontations, "Oscar Wilde," as good as it is, will likely join the long list of new operas that don't provide a compelling reason for people—opera fans or not—to go to the theater.

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