How to be in the world is the subject of The
Hours, a new opera by composer Kevin Puts and
librettist Greg Pierce. The Steiny Road Poet saw
this opera on December 10th, 2022, as a
simulcast of a live Metropolitan Opera
The Hours unfolds a day in which a woman plans
a party to celebrate a cherished friend's
significant poetry award. The catch is that the
friend Richard is dying of A.I.D.S. and believes
he is only getting the award out of pity. Consequently, and because he feels
horrible due to the illness, he doesn't want that attention. Clarissa,
Richard's partymaker and the woman he affectionately calls Mrs. Dalloway
, shows up at his apartment early to help him get dressed and momentarily
interrupts him from jumping out the window.
The first word of the opera is "flowers" and Puts pollinates that idea
musically with what sounds like a swarm of bees to enliven Clarissa's
pursuit of buying flowers for Richard's party.
The last word of the opera is "be," an affirmation of choosing life over
death and it is sung by Clarissa and Richard's mother after his suicide.
THE COMPLEX LITERARY LAYERING OF THE HOURS
Pierce's libretto is based on Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize
-winning novel of the same title, but the foundation of Cunningham's novel
is Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. Simultaneous storytelling, a
cubist writing technique first developed by Gertrude Stein in her novel The
Making of Americans (completed in 1911 but published in 1925), threads
both Woolf's and Cunningham's novels.
To fully appreciate what Cunningham and Pierce have accomplished with
their novel and opera versions of The Hours, Steiny provides first a
summary of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf's novel takes place on a single
day post World War I in which Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class British
woman, prepares for and conducts a party. During that day she muses
about the life choices she has made. Did she marry the right man, or
should she have had an affair with a woman named Sally Seton? At the
party, she hears about a man she didn't know who jumped out a window to
his death when faced with involuntary commitment to a psychiatric
hospital. Mrs. Dalloway thinks approvingly of this man's decision to
commit suicide in contrast to her own static life.
Cunningham's novel interweaves the liberally inventive biographical story
of Virginia Woolf and two fictional characters named Laura Brown and
Clarissa Vaughn. Influences of Mrs. Dalloway are also part of
Cunningham's storytelling. Cunningham places Woolf in Richmond,
England (outside London) in 1923 when she is writing Mrs. Dalloway. He
also depicts her suicide at that time, though in real life, Woolf did not fill
her pockets with rocks and walk into a river to her death until 1941. Laura
Brown is a of post-World-War-II housewife and mother living in Los
Angeles. She is reading Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and unable to understand
why she (Laura Brown) is so desperately unhappy and unfulfilled. She
considers suicide but, in the end, she runs away, abandoning her husband
and two children. The story of Clarissa Vaughn and Richard Brown is set in
New York City in 1999. Clarissa and Richard had been lovers but knowing
that Richard had male lovers as well, Clarissa abandons him and forms a
long-term relationship with a woman named Sally.
WHAT MAKES THE PUTS AND PIERCE OPERA MOVE
The emphasis of the Puts and Pierce Opera is how to live, not how to die by
suicide. Therefore, it is more closely aligned with the spirit of Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway than Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours. Like
Cunningham's novel, suicide also dominates Stephen Daldry's 2002 film The Hours which opens with Woolf walking into the river to drown.
So, the big question was—how would the creative opera team make this a
vital stage work that goes beyond the interior (and therefore static)
thoughts of its characters?
The choreography of Annie-B Parson to a large degree answers those
questions. The dancers function as a manifestation of the interior voices
that plague the main characters. Virginia's voices manifest as spirits with
books either lying around reading or writing while the housewife Laura
Brown's sprites pick up kitchen utensils and circulate in a dizzying fantasia.
A large chorus auditorily reinforces the dancers and gives heft to those
interior voices. Director Phelim McDermott has accomplished a tour de
force in keeping the three stories with all its characters, the large chorus,
and the many dancers moving together with seamless precision.
Puts' music for the most part is through-composed. Accessible and lyrical,
it flows fluidly through the entire opera with occasional memorable
moments like the jazzy Hollywood musical sound environment written for
the scenes in Laura Brown's kitchen. In its own way, Puts' music is like the
musical score by Philip Glass written for Stephen Daldry's film. Both scores
flow continuously through the separate stories providing emotional accents
but without much differentiation.
The cast was impressive for their vocal and acting skills: Ren√©e Fleming
(Clarissa Vaughn), Kelli O'Hara (Laura Brown), Joyce Didonato (Virginia
Woolf), Sally (Denyce Graves), Kyle Ketelson (Richard Brown). Steiny also
was pleased to note Eve Gigliotti in the role of Virginia's cook Nelly.
Gigliotti starred as Gertrude in Steiny's (a.k.a. Karren Alenier's) chamber
opera with composer Bill Banfield Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early
On. In short, there were no divas in this cast and Puts seemed to balance
the music sung.
The Hours, a three-hour-and-30-minute opera with one intermission has
no dull moments. It is an opera worth seeing again. Tears might fall at its