At a recent dinner at Alice Water's Café, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, I ran into a writer friend who told me that nobody wanted her latest novel so she had decided to self-publish it with Books on Demand. The element of wish fulfillment in this concept of book publishing got me dreaming. I had just seen John Adam's Doctor Atomic and couldn't resist the impulse to help the tottering movement of modern American opera along with a similar idea. Commissions are one thing (a thing of the present), but let's step into the future where no man has gone before – into the interactive, eminently democratic field of Opera On Demand. My dessert arrived – a luscious layered chocolate cake. The first taste (like Proust's Madeleine) reminded me of the time, some years back, when Chez Panisse had taken all chocolate desserts off the menu... in order to educate patrons about their other, more sophisticated dessert offerings. In an instant it was clear to me that Alice Waters would be the ideal heroine of my first Opera On Demand – and the ideal composer would of course be her fellow idealist, John Adams...
After the wave of American historical tidbit operas (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) and historical grand-ham operas (Doctor Atomic) it is time for something new. John Adams is taking a bold turn to the present with his contemporary eco-opera Alice Alice. Set in Berkeley, where the composer lives, the opera in progress is a loving portrait of California Nouvelle Cuisine inventor Alice Waters and the profound social changes this revolutionary has wrought in Berkeley and world-wide.
Adam's eco-opera will allegedly inaugurate San Francisco Opera's new director David Gockley's second San Francisco season (for the first one, in 2008-09, new opera commissions for Philip Glass and Stewart Wallace have already been announced).
A source close to the composer revealed that Alice Alice is "more than politically correct, it is pp – politically poignant." Scrapping the ouverture, the shock opening presents a multi-racial chorus, "There's no ghetto like our gourmet ghetto." With an edgy Broadway touch and solo segments the chorus tells the story of Alice's restaurants – Chez Panisse, Fanny's and César's, evoking the spirit of the era from the radical sixties to the opulent nineties. The orchestral setting is radical indeed in its complication. While a quartet of tenors wearing berets throw in humorous staccato accents in traditional French: "Baguette, Fromage de chèvre, Tarte Tatin, Marcel Pagnol, Côte du Rhône, Vive la France, etc.", they are joined by a soprano and mezzo soprano who point to the happy marriage of Berkeley's radical traditions with Alice's pioneer spirit. The women's fractured rhythmic punctuations remind the audience with subtle irony of Berkeley inventions, "The Cheese Hoard Collective, The Edible Complex, People's Fork, Mario Savory, Free Speed, Make Lox Not War."
Then a quiet orchestral and electronic collage based on the chimes of the Campus Campanile accompanies a procession of Berkelytes in front of Chez Panisse. A crescendo builds up into the manic instrumental textures and metallic surfaces Adams is famous for, while skate boarders and nudists mix with Sather Gate prophets, Anti-Nuclear protestors, the homeless ("Free Lunch!") and dog walkers who cite in sprechgesang the city ordinance renaming dog owners "dog guardians". Out of the cacophony arises the single soprano voice of Alice W in an "Ode to Arugula."
But Act I does not end on this lyrical note. Conflict erupts when patrons hoisted on top of a car in Sproul Plaza demand chocolate desserts. Alice W lectures from the Sproul Hall steps about dessert consciousness, backed by a corona of chefs praising "Crème Brulée, Gooseberry Tart, Rhubarb Compote, and Lemon Sorbet." Alice W rises above Campus in a visionary cloud with an echo of the Bach cantata "Ich habe genug"( "I've had enough"). It is a composition that plays wittily with the kinship between "savor" and "savior." The patrons and demonstrators are brought to their knees.
Not many details are revealed yet about Act II. The commissioned libretto unites a collective of Bay Area writers – authors of bestsellers related to the themes of the opera (Lunch at the Café Ridiculous, What It's Like To Live Now, Bird By Bird, and perhaps most aptly, The Hungry Self). But at a recent press conference at the Berkeley landmark, Phoenix Pasticceria (where Alice W is known to supply herself with fresh pasta), a glimpse behind the curtain of mystery provided the following.
While the multi-racial chorus chops greens at kitchen tables in the back ("Chop-chop, chop-chop..."), Alice W enlightens three French chefs about the superiority of California Cuisine and its organic, orgasmic varieties of lettuces. The steamy quartet plays off Vivaldi's " Four Seasons" and culminates in a plea for a new Alice's restaurant in the Louvre. The tête à tête is brutally interrupted by card-carrying vegans confronting a group of vegetarians, and by demonstrators for "Grass-Fed Beef" shouting down marchers for "Grain-Fed Neiman Shell." An antiphonal choral in unresolved dissonance proclaims, "Grasslands, prairies for our cows!" "No blood for food!" "Cows in Berkeley? Mooo!" "Save the grass – let them eat cake!"
But Alice W saves the day with a choir of children dressed in garden aprons pledging allegiance to spinach. A touch of European connection is preserved through the silhouette of Prince Charles and Priscilla seen walking through a Berkeley school yard nibbling Alice W's school lunch from (recycled) paper cones. A discreet patriotic touch pervades the coda – an allusion to the National Anthem in counterpoint with Pachelbel's Canon as the children intone, "A green world, a healthy world, a broccoli world."
At the press conference, the composer was asked if there will be a love story in the new opera? Adams declined to give the plot away. But he promised a departure from his usual pessimistic Wagnerian endings. In a daring move toward the personal (which in Berkeley is still political), the character of the composer, John A, will join Alice W in serving up a humane vision to a larger, cultivated world by creating an eco-opera together. The cultivated opera-goer will undoubtedly recognize the orchestral quotations and relish the allusions to another famous pair of opera collaborators, Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. Saint Teresa, the composer added with a sly smile, may appear dressed as a vegetable. He also revealed that he is working on a key dramatic scene of Alice W's notorious refusal to cook for the present White House. This very contemporary, politically charged scene will have Alice lounging at the bar of César's singing "I'm just a girl who can say no" backed by the patrons and waiters banging spoons against their glasses in counter-rhythm, "She Can say no, she Can say no!"
Adams admitted that a certain Berkeley writer pressured him to include a memento for another famous Alice (for whom, it is rumored, Alice W was named). Otherwise, this female member of the press corps insisted, the title of the opera – Alice Alice – would not make sense. She demanded that the full chorus, including the children, ought to quote the hash brownie recipe from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, accompanied by kettle drums and champagne flutes.
In case Adams backs out of the project (as has happened before with San Francisco commissioned operas), it is rumored that composers Ned Rorem and Steven Sondheim are standing by to step in. Opera On Demand is sure to serve America its first home-grown eco-opera.