Better Gods: Who Was Queen Lili'uokalani?
On January 8, 2016, the Washington National Opera in its American Opera Initiative program premiered the 60-minute opera Better Gods with music by Luna Pearl Woolf and libretto by Caitlin Vincent. While the Dresser liked the music and performances by the cast of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, she thought the libretto needed work and that Ethan McSweeney's stage direction was problematic.
The story concerns how the United States annexed Hawaii, stealing governing rights from Queen Lili'uokalani (sung by the impressive mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman) just as she announced that she would issue a new constitution returning voting rights to Hawaiian citizens. A business man named Lorrin Thurston (tenor Rexford Tester) asks her to reconsider her plan, which would limit foreign influence and possibly business opportunities. Thurston stages a coup d' état (January 17, 1893), enlisting U.S. marines by saying the Queen has put American lives in danger. Meanwhile, the Queen surrenders, thinking U.S. President Grover Cleveland will step in, punish Thurston, and restore her rightful power. A young Associated Press journalist--James Miller (baritone Hunter Enoch)--comes from San Francisco to report on the overthrow and is initially influenced by Thurston. Then Miller finds out the truth only to be mocked by Thurston. Supporters of the Queen rebel but everyone including Lili'uokalani are arrested, put on trial, and sentenced.
The first half of this intermissionless work was a snooze. Dramatically nothing happened. Exhibiting how he was creating sound texture with such items as a bowl full of shells through which that he raked his fingers, the onstage percussionist Greg Akagi was a sensorial treat. However, his performance was not enough to make up for the lack of physical interaction by the singers on stage. The libretto needed to get to the point sooner and the poetic elements of Hawaiian myth needed to be enhanced, possibly as a dumb show to create movement on stage.
Woolf's music, while pleasingly lyric and accessible, tended to be an overall soundscape without distinct moments. Woolf might have done the music this way to allow for two Hawaiian compositions--the traditional "Kumulipo" ("Creation Chant") and "Aloha 'Oe"--to be featured. Queen Lili'uokalani was the English translator of "Kumulipo" and the composer of "Aloha 'Oe." The Dresser was impressed with how seamlessly and beautifully Woolf blended "Aloha 'Oe" into the music of Better Gods, making this old chestnut new to the ear. The duet between Queen Lili'uokalani and her attendant Kahua (soprano Ariana Wehr) was pleasing both aurally and visually as the two enlivened the well-known song with traditional Hawaiian hand gestures. To the composer's credit, the Dresser did not hear Woolf's music with Hawaiian influence although it used percussion associated with traditional Hawaiian compositions.
Daryl Freedman's performance was a standout but the Dresser wasn't sure why she elongated the words and slowed down what she sang. Lyly A. Saunders" costumes for Queen Lili'uokalani, fancy Western gowns, were eye catching. The Dresser wonders how many audience members were curious why Lili'uokalani wore Western dress instead of native Hawaiian dress. The Dresser thinks that had the libretto paid more attention to who the Hawaiian queen was in terms of racial and gender issues vis-à-vis the political power struggle that the story would have been more compelling. The Dresser liked Caitlin Vincent's libretto for WNO 2013 American Opera Initiative's premiere of Uncle Alex (a twenty-minute opera) so expectation was set for a more compelling Better Gods.
In Margo Berdeshevsky's poem "When Are You Not," the question is asked about the essence of not only the poet who is a woman but also of men including the woman's lover and Christ--what makes people stand out as individuals? This is the question that Better Gods needs to explore more.
WHEN ARE YOU NOT
When are you not a poet and just a woman
the lover asks, manna on his false tongue,
jackhammer to a swollen earth of your breasts
Never, you want to scream never
not a linguist of the soul daring word
to prayer, and rage, and please, peace. Never
not a maker of the small, to serve.
(But not your kind of mother.)
Never not a chisel to the morning leaf
or the sorrow of the storm. Never not
a gatherer of cries in these hands
that have lost thumbs, but have prayers.
When are you a normal person gathering overripe
fruit for juice, not for the mystery of the tree?
Never not watching the larvae, the hungry
white fly, Its kiss. Never the thigh not jiggling
at tedium--so eager to leap stones at a stream--
imagine the gazelle.
Never when the sperm is pulsed at the womb, no music.
no colored cry, no muted sax playing an Almighty's baritone.
Ask the lover, when was Christ not a carpenter? When
He hung on wood to die? Or building chairs for thieves,
to His future right, and to His future left? Ask the lover,
when are you not a man, and just a woman, love, there
in line at the new Eagle Brand Hardware store, waiting
for its morning doors to open so you two may buy nails,
a ladder, gladioli.....newly born.
from Between Soul and Stone published by Sheep Meadow Press
copyright © 2011 Margo Berdeshevsky
Photos by Scott Suchman