January 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

The Hours—Choosing Life over Suicide

Karren Alenier

hours-poster-crHow 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 performance.

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.


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.


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: Renée 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 conclusion.


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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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