American oratorio composer Theodore Morrison and British stage director John Cox have collaborated on the creation of a new operatic work for counter-tenor David Daniels. The opera’s subject is the impact of a humiliating trial and brutal imprisonment of Irish author Oscar Wilde.
A collaboration between the Santa Fe Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia, its world premiere took place in Santa Fe, with four additional 2013 performances scheduled. Its Philadelphia performances will take place in 2015.
[Below: Oscar Wilde (David Daniels, below) stands below his vision of “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas (Reed Luplau, above); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Morrison is a former chorus director and conductor turned choral writer and composer for voice. The history of the idea for this work began nearly a decade ago with a song cycle written for Daniels. Director Cox met Morrison at the song cycle and eventually the idea of a collaboration evolved into an opera for Daniels about the personal disaster that befell Oscar Wilde.
“Oscar” as Message Opera
Cox has spoken of his long-term, same sex relationship, that has endured through decades of British official intolerance of gay couples. Only recently has Britain recognized civil unions.
Thus, one of the elements that comprise the work, is the message that societal discrimination against gays has been devastating to the creative spirit and is a denial of basic human rights.
As constructed, the work is part “message opera”, with relevant quotations of Wilde’s letters, and excerpts from his trial for “lewd behavior and indecency”. The charge of “indecency” was the result of his tumultuous gay relationship with the son, “Bosie” (Alfred Lord Douglas), of the powerful Marquis of Queensbury.
The opera’s primary message, of course, is that the entire British official intolerance of gays was morally wrong and destructive.
Alternatives Available to Wilde
But the message is only one element of the work. There is what I call the “strategically practical” element, which I consider akin to a sung play, which include the conversations between Wilde, his friend, and later, biographer, Frank Harris (William Burden) and authoress Ada Leverson (Heidi Stober).
Harris and Leverson dislike the law, of course, and Wilde’s entanglement in it. But these close friends constantly strategize as to how to use the seemingly abundant opportunities for Wilde to escape the clutches of the legal system.
[Below: Oscar Wilde (David Daniels, left) rejects the idea of escape to France that has been arranged by Frank Harris (William Burden, right) with the aid of Ada Leverson (Heidi Stober, center); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In fact, a student of Wilde over a century later may very likely continue to side with Frank and Ada, and to consider that Bosie’s encouragement of Wilde’s libel suit against Bosie’s father was dishonorable, because, when Wilde’s legal proceedings shifted from offense to defense, Bosie abandoned his lover in his time of need to seek refuge in Europe.
Wilde’s friends arranged a superior defense team for him, that was dismayed by Wilde’s lack of cooperation, lack of candor about relevant experiences, and open contemptuousness of the proceedings.
[Below: Oscar Wilde in 1882; edited image of a photograph by Nicholas Sarony.]
Whether he embraced his fate consciously or not, Wilde’s behavior caused his transformation from a witty celebrity to one of literature’s tragic figures.
Wilde’s Heroic Choice
In my interview with the composer, Theodore Morrison (Opera Advocating for Human Rights: An Interview with “Oscar” Composer Theodore Morrison), it’s clear that the opera’s creative team believes that whether or not he had intended to become a martyr, the ultimate effect of his brutal incarceration was for Wilde to become an eloquent and catalyzing force for human rights.
Wilde’s early death, three years after release from Reading Gaol, was almost certainly the result of his physically and psychologically harsh treatment there, and likely also of inappropriate care for an ear injury.
Morrison makes the point that whereas other works cast Oscar as a victim, the creative team intended to cast Oscar as a heroic figure.
The Opera’s Real and Surreal Elements
I referred above to the efforts of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris to encourage Oscar to leave Britain and not endure the trial. These scenes I regard as realistic (as opposed to surreal).
In fact, as the opera proceeds, one of most realistic elements of the opera are the scenes in Reading Gaol, in which Morrison’s vocal writing, surely inspired by his choral compositions, are summoned for some of the opera’s dramatic high points.
Even so, some of the most original, effective, and, indeed “operatic” parts of the work are its incorporation of the surreal into the story line. But even these surreal elements are distinctively different.
For the beginning and ending scenes and occasionally in mid-opera, the American poet Walt Whitman (sung authoritatively by Dwayne Croft) acts as a Chorus. According to Morrison, Whitman has an expositional role, like the Chorus in the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet.
In contrast to the scenes of Whitman and (at opera’s end) the Immortals, that are surreal, but who speak directly to us as the audience, there are also elements that represent Oscar Wilde’s imagination.
The lover with whom Oscar was obsessed, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), appears as a mute dancer, superbly danced by Reed Luplau.
[Below: the vision of Bosie (Reed Leplau, left) appears to Oscar (David Daniels, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Although the analogy between the dancer for Bosie in “Oscar” and the dancer for Tadzio in Britten’s “Death in Venice” will occur to many in the audience, [See Michael Schade, Nmon Ford, Gabriele Frola Brilliant in Hamburg’s New “Death in Venice” – April 19, 2009 ] in fact there is a distinction. Tadzio is a real flesh and blood character, who only in Aschenbach’s dream appears as an imaginative figment. Bosie only appears in the opera in Oscar’s imagination.
The dancer Reed Leplau has provided a stunning portrait of Wilde’s idealized image of a man who in real life has “done him wrong”.
Another highlight of the opera, that is placed in the critical scene before the intermission between in the two acts, is a surreal episode in which all the toys in Ada’s nursery act out key details of the Wilde trial.
Although the fantastic scene takes place in Ada’s home, it provides the opportunity to express Wilde’s obvious disdain for the English court and jury system that tried him.
All of us, audience, composer, librettist and artists may agree that Wilde, now that over a century has passed, had the right to ridicule the English court and jury system in its enforcement of “lewd conduct” laws against gays.
Yet, that Ada and Frank feared the trial’s consequences, and encouraged Oscar to flee, is uncontested. But, dramatically, if Wilde’s companions were hostile to the court system and held the degree of disdain that the toy court scene suggests, then their efforts to secure good legal counsel for him would make less sense. Thus, I prefer to consider the toy courtroom as solely in Oscar’s imagination.
[Below: David Korins sets for the Wilde’s vision of a trial populated by the nursery toys; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wilde in Reading Gaol
The most emotionally (and musically) powerful scenes in the opera are those that take place in the preparations for Wilde’s incarceration, and, subsequently, for his two terrible years in Reading Gaol. These chilling scenes begin with the introduction of the character of Colonel Isaacson (played with great effectiveness by basso Kevin Burdette), who intends to break the spirit of the celebrity author who is assigned to his prison.
From these moments on, the opera is not just about whether Wilde has been found guilty of violating the existing British anti-sodomy laws. It is now an exposition of government power determined to crush dissidence against whatever the prevailing government’s view of social order might be.
[Below: A contemptuous Oscar Wilde (David Daniels, left) learns that the merciless Governor of Reading Gaol, Colonel Isaacson (Kevin Burdette, right) intends to break him; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
British practices for controlling prisoners at the end of the 19th century, if slightly more humane than British practices for controlling order on its warships at the century’s beginning [See Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008], relied heavily on solitary confinement and enforced non-communication between individual prisoners.
A symbolic theme, built upon a Wilde epigram that a person needs to wear a mask to be able to tell the truth (masks will appear occasionally in his visions of Bosie), is particularly evident in the scenes where the prisoners are required to mask their identity.
Only when Wilde suffers an ear injury in a fall in the prison chapel and is reluctantly assigned by Isaacson to the prison infirmary does Wilde finally get the opportunity to interact with others. It is in the infirmary where Wilde fully realizes the human misery that occurs within the “correctional” system and begins to empathize with those who are the victims of injustice.
[Below: David Daniels (center) as Oscar Wilde, imprisoned at Reading Gaol; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wilde’s friends are unable to get his sentence commuted, but author and newspaper contributor Frank Harris (sung by William Burden with the expected panache associated with this outsized personality), through editorials about intolerable injustices in the Reading prison, manages to get Isaacson reassigned. Wilde is thus able to spend the duration of his incarceration in a less hostile environment.
The production and cast
The Santa Fe Opera has committed impressive resources to the project. The cast is an elite and internationally important one, with arguably the world’s leading counter-tenor, David Daniels, in the title role.
Dwayne Croft, William Burden, Heidi Stober and Kevin Burdette each developed a credible portrait of the historical personages (respectively, Whitman, Harris, Leverson and Isaacson) that they represented. (Burdette doubled in the role of the Jack-in-the-box fantasy portrayal of the presiding judge, Mr Justice Sir Alfred Wills.)
[Below: Walt Whitman (Dwayne Croft, right, holding hat) informs Oscar Wilde (David Daniels, center) that he is to be one of the Immortals; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The creative team assembled included set designer David Korins, whose spectacular sets are among the most memorable of the Santa Fe Opera offerings I have reviewed.
The stage director for the complex shifts between the real and imaginary worlds was Kevin Newbury. I believe it significant to mention that Korins and Newbury (and Burden) were simultaneously collaborating on two world premieres, the other having opened five and a half weeks earlier [See my review at Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013.]
Integrated within Newbury’s concept for stage action was choreographer Sean Curran’s effective and affecting choreography of the mime and ballet sequences with dancer Reed Luplau.
[Below: David Korins sets for the Immortals; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The period costumes were designed by David C. Woolard. Rick Fisher was the lighting designer.
Evan Rogister was the conductor, always an important assignment for a new opera, for which, with no performance history, there is much additional work required.
Initial Thoughts and Recommendation
I have written recently [see A Second Look: San Francisco Opera Mounts Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” Magnificently – July 7, 2013 ] about the particular difficulties a reviewer faces (or should feel) with a world premiere.
Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Oscar” is a thought-provoking, theatrically valid work, with considerable worthy musical content. It already is guaranteed a second round of performances in Philadelphia, and I suspect will have a durable life beyond that.
The number of high quality gay-themed operatic works is very small, and this in itself will be considered a reason for including the work in the “adventuresome” part of an opera season’s programming. One should consider, as the composer and librettist surely do, that this is an opera about the broader subject of human rights. (It is, ultimately, an American opera about the “pursuit of happiness” in areas of one’s life in which the government’s “correctional” powers should have no place.)
With a new work, sometimes “less is more”. Most every opera ever composed can be considered unsuccessful, because most are rarely or never performed subsequently. Some operas that have achieved permanent repertory status sustained cuts early on that helped concentrate the audience’s attention on the opera’s greatest strengths. At later times, after the operas achieved an enduring audience, often the “cuts” have been restored.
My first impression is that for the early performance history of the opera, some of the “expositional” background should be edited out. Both Harris and Leverson are interesing figures from literary history in their own right. However, their part in this opera’s plot – which, rather than a documentary, is a theatrical work – is to represent Wilde’s opportunity to escape his fate.
I also believe the early scenes about hotels discriminating against Oscar Wilde, even if interestingly scored, postpone the more audience-absorbing scenes in Ada’s nursery, which ultimately lead to the truly powerful scenes in Reading Gaol.
These small criticisms should not be interpreted as findings of fatal flaws. The vibrant production, excellent cast, dramatic situations, intelligent libretto, and particularly Morrison’s expansive choral scenes in Reading Gaol, are worthy of an opera goer’s attentions.
I recommend this performance, cast and new work, to opera goers appreciative of the dynamic spirit that has infused American opera.
For my July 2011 interview with the opera’s lead performer, see: Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels.