Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The Letter": notes on an opera's world premiere

Exactly three weeks ago, I was at the world premiere of the opera The Letter, in Santa Fe. As I mentioned before, the main reason I was excited to see this is because I'm friends with Terry Teachout, the librettist. Because of this personal connection, and also because so much time has elapsed, I'm not "reviewing" it in my usual fashion. Instead, here are some notes, impressions, things that stuck with me...
  • The morning of the day the opera premiered, I attended a symposium hosted by Terry and Paul Moravec, the composer. Their collaborative process is really inspirational for anyone who hopes to work in the arts. Following Sondheim's dictum "before you start to write a show, make sure you're all writing the same show!" they spent a long time just figuring out what kind of opera they wanted to write, what its antecedents and stylistic hallmarks would be. And thus, during the writing process, they never had a single fight! They sum up The Letter with the phrase "opera noir": it is based on Somerset Maugham's tale of adultery and murder in entre-les-guerres Malaysia, and the goal was to make it as emotional as an opera and as swift and deadly as a film noir. "This is not an egghead opera!" Terry said repeatedly.

  • Even so, I know I'm not really qualified to discuss Paul's music because of my lack of experience with modern opera and modern classical music in general. (But yes, I am qualified to call Paul by his first name, since Terry introduced us after the symposium.) I would say that it's the kind of music where you can remember the general contours of the vocal lines, but not any distinct melodies. For instance, I remember that Leslie's first aria ends with her shrieking the word "Blood!" on a very high note, and the Chinese Woman's aria ends on low mezzo notes, rueful and meditative. The text-setting was generally intutitive; it wasn't hard to make out the words. At the symposium, Paul said that he used a twelve-tone scale for Leslie, the liar and murderess (thus making her a "serial killer," ha-ha) and a diatonic scale for Robert, her cuckolded husband. And it's true that when Robert began his first extended passage of music (singing to Leslie to comfort her after the murder), you could feel everyone sort of relax into it, because it was the first diatonic section of the opera. The twelve-tone or chromatic music puts you more on edge, but why shouldn't it? Murky music for an opera about murky people.

  • A vicarious thrill: I am 99% sure that Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, walked past me twice as I stood outside the opera house, waiting to take my seat! I recognized him from photographs--in a dark suit, bald, with glasses, he looked rather like an "egghead" himself! I wondered, too, if he carried an invisible aura of celebrity and power about him--something that caused me to notice him in the crowd in the first place, even though he is not a very distinctive-looking man. He ought to have that aura--he's probably the most important man in American opera!
  • My mom and I also got a vicarious thrill from seeing Tom Ford, the opera's costume designer, take his bow wearing one of his natty suits with an open-necked shirt. His work on the opera was very stylish--requiring lots of tailored white linen or tropical-weight wool suits for all of the male characters. There are only two females in the opera, but I loved the frilly pink net pegnoir that Leslie wore at the start of the opera, as well as the Chinese Woman's platform shoes and extra-long fingernails!

  • The sets and lighting also looked great--and worked in conjunction because of the ceiling fans that rotated and cast noirish shadows across the stage. Stories about despicable people are always better when they're placed in an attractive setting--I guess because we get seduced by the setting for a while, only to get a jolt when we realize the true awfulness that lies below the stylish surface...

  • In The Letter, this awfulness isn't just Leslie's adultery, lies, and murder; it's the white characters' casual and unthinking racism toward Asians. This is brought to the fore in a scene that takes place in a men's club, where the men sing a jaunty ditty saluting Leslie and insulting Geoff, who had taken an Asian mistress--"It was a daaamn good thing she shot him!" I believe this is the only section of the opera that uses rhyme and a conventional foursquare meter, so again, it lulls you into laughing and tapping your foot, until you realize what you're laughing at...

  • Yet at the same time, the opera is not about "the evils of racism" or anything like that. That would make it an intellectualized, moralizing, "egghead opera"--just what Terry and Paul didn't want to write. The Colonial Malaysia setting lends the opera a stylish atmosphere and helps provide motivations for some of the characters--for instance, they're poisoned by racism, or they're frustrated to be so far from England. But deep down, the story is a very basic one--change a few details and you could easily transfer it to a different place and time. This seems to me to be a feature of many of the most enduring operas--e.g. we don't go to see Tosca because of all that Napoleonic-era political stuff, but because of the human interactions between Tosca, Scarpia and Cavaradossi.

  • One of my favorite bits of characterization came in the last scene of the opera. Throughout the other scenes, Robert has been an endlessly trusting and supportive husband, with his emotions under control. But at the end, he starts to get suspicious of Leslie (even though she's been acquitted), and his personality changes: he becomes kind of dangerously cheerful, angry, possibly drunk. In other words, you've gotten to know Robert well enough over the course of the opera (through both the music and the acting) that you immediately recognize this shift in his personality--and this leads to a sense of foreboding. Sure enough, something really bad happens to finish out the opera...

  • As for the singers, Patricia Racette did a great job with Leslie's challenging music, as well as showing the different sides of her character: someone who knows how to behave like a poised, stiff-upper-lip planter's wife, but is actually sexually frustrated, passionate, and very self-centered. Anthony Michaels-Moore played Robert and, as I said in my paragraph above, his acting contributed a great deal to the success of the final scene. Also there was good support from James Maddalena, as Leslie's lawyer, and Roger Honeywell, as Leslie's deceased lover, a haunting voice calling from offstage in several of the scenes.
Terry and Paul have certainly succeeded in creating the exact opera that they wanted to create, and in knowing how to accurately describe what they have made--all of which is harder than it looks! And after reading so much about it on Terry's blog (see all his posts here) it was wonderful to see the artistic fulfillment of it. Bravo, gentlemen!

P.S. I don't feel like taking the time to add multiple images to this post, but if you want to see the costumes and sets, go here; and here for video excerpts of the opera. The photo at the top is of Patricia Racette.

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