Many music lovers wouldn't so much as bat an eyelash if the plot of an opera set in another historical period included elements of rape, incest, lesbianism, cross-generational sex and/or necrophilia. However, when confronted with a genuine depiction of sexual tension in modern-day settings, the very same audience quickly comes unglued. Why should that happen? Because, despite the fact that most of what these people watch on television these days (soap operas, movie reruns and the evening news) revolves around the harsher realities of sex, drugs and violence, when such forces are placed in a theatrical setting that hits too close to home, opera suddenly loses much of its appeal to conservative subscribers who are seeking sugar-coated escapist fantasies.
Alas, not every act of copulation (whether real or simulated) can take place offstage and, no matter how you slice it, the human sexual urge remains a dramatic force which -- in addition to inspiring readers, playwrights and librettists -- scores strongest when it can take the reader or audience by surprise. Oddly enough, while those Americans who take great pride in the fact that they have "enquiring minds" can never seem to get enough of sadistic parents who keep mongoloid children locked up in rat-infested cellars (or suburban housewives who claim to have been impregnated by illegal aliens from distant solar systems), the raw passions, perverse ironies and sexual truths of our daily lives are frequently much too realistic for them to handle.
That's basically why so many people walked out on Stephen Sondheim's Follies when it first appeared on Broadway. Why did such supposedly sophisticated audiences similarly squirm in their seats during two recent productions of contemporary operas by American composers? The answer is simple: These people were unable to confront boldly theatrical depictions of extramarital sex, older women getting fucked by young leather studs (the stuff of which so many wet dreams are made) and the glaring tragedy of a young, unmarried and supposedly innocent girl experiencing a self-induced miscarriage in the snow.
What were they hoping for? Mary Poppins?
I'M JUST A GIGOLO
With their hearts and minds solidly entrenched in Bible Belt morality, it hardly comes as any surprise that so many subscribers to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis were offended by the company's phenomenally successful staging of Samuel Barber's Vanessa (an event timed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this beautiful opera's world premiere). For this landmark production, OTSL's director, Graham Vick, updated Vanessa to the period of its composition (thus transforming Anatol into a young rebel following in the footsteps of James Dean while clothing the title character in outrageous Life Magazine fashions which quickly gained the envy of every gay man in the audience). After experiencing Vanessa within the intimate confines of the 950-seat Loretto-Hilton Theatre with its thrust stage and three-quarter-round seating, it is difficult for me to imagine how the opera could have stood a chance in the vast reaches of the old Metropolitan Opera House (where it received its world premiere on January 15, 1958).
Vick's reinterpretation of an all too sadly neglected opera (by one of America's greatest composers) scored strongly with those who appreciate the artistic value of good opera theatre backed by solid production values. With the exception of one or two gratuitous touches (did we really need that flashback to a group of tired old men dressed in lederhosen who were dancing a Tyrolean laendler?) the directorial concept crystallized the difference in ages and sexual morals between the opera's main characters while the production's costume designs heightened the clash between generations. Kevin Rupnik's fashions (as well as his superb unit set) made Barber's opera a much more accessible and dramatically valid experience than it must have been in its original production.
Strong cameos were etched by Elaine Bonazzi as the old Baroness, Richard Stilwell as the Old Doctor and Michael MacMurray as the Majordomo while Joseph Rescigno's forceful conducting and Peter Kaczorowski's sensitive lighting helped to convey the delicate mood changes which occur so frequently during Barber's score. In many ways, OTSL's production made one feel as if Vanessa could well be the operatic equivalent of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mister Sloane. Although John David De Haan's Anatol who, shortly after his entrance, suggestively palmed his thighs (stopping within a hair's breadth of cupping his groin) was appropriately youthful, rambunctious and sexually menacing, it was the two lead sopranos who really ran off with the show.
As Erika, Susan Graham scored one of those phenomenal debuts which rockets a young singer's career into the stratosphere. With a magnificent command of her character in terms of acting, singing and, most importantly, diction, Miss Graham's performance had "A Star Is Born" written all over it. As her aunt Vanessa, (a fading aristocratic beauty whose blindingly girlish affection for the son of her former lover prevents her from ever facing love's bitter truths) Patricia Wells -- especially when decked out in Rupnik's more outrageous fashions -- cut an extremely theatrical figure onstage. Perhaps a bit less vocally sure of herself than Miss Graham (and forced to embody a decidedly less sympathetic character) the soprano was nevertheless a consummate performer, capturing the bitter irony of Vanessa's love and articulating it brilliantly in musical terms.
Incidentally, if OTSL's General Director, Charles MacKay ever gets desperate for money, he might consider holding a pre-Halloween fundraiser in a St. Louis leather bar. The auctioneer could easily begin by offering up John David De Haan's boots, chaps, chains, epaulets and leather jacket for bids before raising the stakes and moving on to the starkly dramatic ensembles which Rupkin designed for his heroine (every queen in the audience swore that he'd give his eye teeth for Vanessa's Act II ball gown).
Ever since its 1982 world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I have been a strong fan of Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Unlike John Adams' Nixon in China (whose initial success was bolstered by the fact that its composer's first opera had been co-produced by the Houston Grand Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Kennedy Center for the Arts and Brussels' Theatre de la Monnaie -- and then subsequently booked for further performances by the Edinburgh Festival and Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company) Paulus's opera has received separate and unrelated productions from the Fort Worth Opera, Minnesota Opera and Miami Opera.
That's easier said than done -- and not only because of the finances involved. Whenever they choose to produce Postman, impresarios take a calculated risk due to the opera's graphic depictions of sex between the two protagonists. Although, when the Minnesota Opera produced Postman, I was more shocked by the blazing ineptitude of Stephen Wadsworth's stage direction, audiences in St. Paul were genuinely scandalized by the sight of Frank and Cora fucking on the kitchen table.
In March, Miami's operagoers were similarly shocked and titillated by The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sheila Porter tells me that, on opening night, the rate at which the elderly couple sitting beside her downed their chocolates kept accelerating each time Frank and Cora got close to doing "the dirty deed". During that evening's intermission I overheard one woman insist that "Whoever decided to make this into an opera is sick. Do you hear me, Esther? I said sick!" And then, at the second performance, in that tender dramatic moment as the baritone lifted the soprano into his arms and carried her off toward the bedroom, a woman seated midway between myself and the composer gasped "Oy, vey. She's no lightweight!"
Nevertheless, the Greater Miami Opera's production (which used the sets designed by Jesse Hollis for the Fort Worth Opera) once again proved the dramatic and musical viability of Stephen Paulus's second opera. Gerald Freeman directed the work quite effectively while Richard Buckley did his best to coax Miami Opera's orchestra into the mood of the piece. Although Catherine Lamy's Cora was a more intensely sexual animal than Pamela South's, most people will agree that South (whose characterization really taps into Cora's bitterness) does a much better job of singing the role. Timothy Nolen's craggy features may have brought a more drifter-like image to Frank, but Nick Karousatos' diction and singing proved to be much clearer (an important element in any English-language opera).
Although it has yet to be recorded, Paulus's grandly lyrical score is filled with music which begs to be sung. In 1989, The Postman Always Rings Twice will be presented at the Kennedy Center by the Washington Opera (a fact which says a lot about the work's musical strength, dramatic appeal and basic marketability). Performance dates are on January 21, 24, 26, 30, February 3, 5 and, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who claims to be a serious opera queen should make it his business to be there.
* * * * * * * * * *
This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 23, 1988.