Thursday, November 22, 2007

Humiliation Scenes

Considering the current controversy over involuntarily "outing" closeted Gays, it's only right to examine the root of the problem to see how it applies to opera. The urgency one attaches to maintaining a secret creates a viable dramatic conflict in opera and, in many operas, the power behind that secret strengthens the dramatic viability of the opera by adding a sense of urgency to the music.

In many ways, "outing" is a heightened version of that old television game, "I've Got A Secret," in which the personal and/or political stakes are much higher than winning a toaster. The factor which makes a person vulnerable to exposure is the amount of fear motivating him to keep some part of his life a secret. The revelation of a secret can change the course of many people's lives.

Why should anyone need to be forced out of the closet in the first place? What can a person lose when his secret is revealed? For closeted Gays, I suppose one's perceived pride, honor, social standing, and career are at stake. One could also lose family, false friends, fickle fans and a great deal of money. On the positive side, however, one could forsake a value system based on a pernicious set of lies; an act which can become an extremely liberating experience.

When Rep. Barney Frank's sexual escapades made national headlines, the Massachusetts Congressman skillfully defused an explosive media situation by refusing to keep anything secret. His strategy was a simple one known to every out-of-the-closet homosexual and/or 12-stepper: When there are no secrets to be threatened by, one need only deal with the truth.


When the Juilliard Opera Center announced plans to stage Ralph Vaughn-Williams's rarely-performed Hugh The Drover, I leapt at the chance to experience a live performance of this extremely lyrical piece of music theater composed by a man whose music has always charmed me. Vaughn-Williams's "romantic ballad opera" (which includes hints of several English folk songs) contains quite a bit of powerful writing for chorus as well as soloists. A drama in which a young woman renounces a chance to marry the town butcher (a macho clod) in favor of a curious stranger whose life keeps him on the move, Hugh The Drover's second act opens with the hero, accused of witchcraft, locked in a pair of stocks in the center of town. What opera queen with a fetish for humiliation scenes could ask for anything more?

Using sets by Peter Harrison and costumes by Thomas L. Keller, Frank Corsaro directed Hugh The Drover with a wondrous sense of period romance. Strong cameos came from Michael L. Galanter as a ballad seller, John Hancock as both a Sergeant and a Showman and Scott Wilde as the town Constable whose daughter falls in love with the title character. Alison England's Mary was charming and pleasant, if a bit under par vocally. Franco Pomponi gave a pompously butch portrayal of John the Butcher. As the Drover (horse catcher) with a secret, I found Matthew Lord's sullen intensity most appealing; a factor which added a great deal of intrigue to the evening. Richard Bradshaw conducted the performance, which was staged in the Juilliard School's exceptionally intimate theatre.


Back in 1954, when Fanny opened on Broadway with a cast headed by Walter Slezak, Ezio Pinza and Florence Henderson, Harold Rome's score (like Frank Loesser's music for The Most Happy Fella two years later) showed marked operatic tendencies. Although the show itself was never the strongest of Broadway vehicles, Fanny can lay claim to one asset sorely lacking from most of today's Broadway shows: a solid book based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy (which was crafted for the stage by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan so that it had a beginning, a middle and an end).

In the story, Fanny and Marius have grown up in the same village and loved each other since childhood. Although Panisse (a wealthy widower) has proposed marriage to Fanny, she has refused his advances. Marius, who yearns for the sea, finally gets up the courage to spend a night with Fanny and unknowingly impregnates her before heading off to sea. When the girl's mother shames her into marrying Panisse, Fanny discovers an elderly man who is so delighted at the thought of having an heir to his family fortune that he is more than happy to keep the source of Fanny's illegitimate pregnancy a secret.

Marius's father, Cesar (Panisse's best friend), becomes the infant's godfather. But when Marius returns from the sea, neither Fanny nor her child, Cesario, can hide their attraction to him. Years later, when Cesario ducks out of a circus celebration honoring his tenth birthday in order to meet Marius, Panisse suffers a fatal heart attack. Before dying, Panisse insists that Marius wed Fanny and look after their son, thus reuniting the lovers while restoring the ruptured relationship between a father and his biological son.

In retrospect, Rome's score can be seen as part of a trend for Broadway musicals (starting with The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story and heading on toward Carnival! and 110 in the Shade) to develop a greater sense of through-scoring with musical leitmotifs and operatic overtones. However, because it is a flawed work, revivals of Fanny are all too rare.

New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse recently staged Fanny in a beautiful production designed by Michael Anania which was directed with exceptional grace by Robert Johanson. With Jose Ferrer as Cesar and George S. Irving as Panisse, the cast was headed by two veterans of the stage who knew how to handle the geriatric quirks of their characters. Although Teri Bibb was an elegant Fanny, John Leone's handsome Marius lacked vocal and dramatic strength. Karen Shallo offered an overly broad characterization of Fanny's mother, Honorine. Her overacting was nevertheless quite restrained when compared to Paul Kandel's Admiral, an eccentric drifter who fills the heads of young boys like Marius and Cesario with dreams of the sea.

In an age which celebrates Andrew Lloyd Webber's pathetic vapidity, a genuine tear-jerker like Fanny becomes a very curious piece of entertainment. With its circus acts designed to celebrate Cesario's tenth birthday, Fanny certainly pleased the Paper Mill Playhouse's audience. As far as I'm concerned, the performance was well worth a trip to suburban New Jersey.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 31, 1990.

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