Two relatively new American operas recently had East coast productions: Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie and playwright-librettist Terrence McNally and Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess by composer-lyricist Mark Adamo. Both deal with tempering violence from the feminine point of view and have their own political messages.
SISTER HELEN AND THE DEAD MAN
Dead Man Walking, which premiered in 2000 by the San Francisco Opera, enjoyed its 10th production in March 2006 by the Baltimore Opera.
Based on Sister Helen Prejean's book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, McNally's libretto is a masterpiece of deftly woven pragmatic and sublime dialogue that artfully uses image, pop culture, aphorism and cliché. And the emotional temperature runs from fear and rage to playful and comic. For subject matter that involves rape, murder, religious commitment, confession and justice, the moments of levity are refreshingly surprising.
Favorite scenes in Dead Man include Sister Helen (mezzo soprano Theodora Hanslowe) taking off on the piano in a jazzy riff and being called down by Sister Rose (soprano Kishna Davis), a motorcycle cop (baritone James J. Rollins) pulling over Sister Helen for speeding but wary of giving her ticket since he got audited by an IRS agent whom he had ticketed, and Sister Helen bonding with Joseph over their common love of the songs sung by Elvis Presley. Theodora Hanslowe makes Sister Helen a complex blood-and-guts foil to Packard's enactment of the tattooed death row inmate.
But more surprising is Heggie's lyrical music that manifests as deeply compassionate and not strident as one might expect. Violins and wind instruments open Dead Man Walking with a melodic circling that seems to suggest something pastoral. Except for the real convertible tuned in to a radio station playing the hits of the early 1980s (Heggie actually wrote the pop songs playing on the car radio), the first moments of the opening scene with two nude teenagers drying themselves from a mid-night skinny dip could be the Garden of Eden. The shock of the de Rocher brothers sneaking up on the vulnerable girl and boy and committing their acts of brutality in full view of the attending audience leaves an indelible impression that tempers the reception of Sister Helen and her commitment to act as spiritual advisor to Joseph de Rocher, a man as emotionally hard as his last name suggests. However, by the end of the opera, through seemingly small incidents and Heggie's lyricism, the audience understands how Sister Helen is able to overcome her own revulsion and love a man who committed horrific brutalities in order to bring him to God for forgiveness.
This production of Dead Man Walking was commissioned in 2001 and co-produced by Opera Pacific (2002), Cincinnati Opera (2002), New York City Opera (2002), Austin Lyric Opera (2003), Michigan Opera Theater (2003), Pittsburgh Opera (2004), and Baltimore Opera. What made this Baltimore Opera production particularly appealing were the performances of the conductor Patrick Summers and the baritone John Packard as Joseph de Rocher, both had helped shape the world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. The level of ease and expertise surely set the tone for the rest of the excellent cast and supporting artists.
WHAT COULD BE FUNNY ABOUT WAR?
Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess made it's world premiere in March 2005 by the Houston Grand Opera and its New York premiere one year later by New York City Opera. Mark Adamo has reworked Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, first presented in 411 B.C.E., and given more heft to the characters and subject matter by turning a classic farce into a thought-provoking and witty tragicomedy that happens to speak to current United States involvement in what has become a civil war in Iraq.
Who would suspect that a comic opera that opens with airy musical chords, making this reviewer think of Peter Pan, and then manifests with a trio of Furies physically descending from the heavens would be followed by women in tunics carrying signs of protest and shouting, "Peace now." Adamo as librettist is a virtuoso of clever turnings that catapult between the ancient setting of Greece and the wars between its city-states versus modern day America with its unpopular wars that started with Vietnam and now include Iraq. When Kleonike (contralto Myrna Paris) explains to her band of protestors that men fight but women compromise, one cannot help but wonder if the American psyche is opening to the possibility of a woman as the 44th President of the United States.
Realistically what ensues is that the protagonist Lysistrata (soprano Emily Pulley) picks up Kleonike's protest as her own only after her lover General Nico (tenor Chad Shelton) frustrates her by refusing to quit his commission in the fight again Sparta. Lysistrata ratchets up her revenge by organizing not only the women of Athens but also the women of Sparta. She demands that the coalition of women refuse sex to their men in order to exact peace. Although the women agree to follow Lysistrata, keeping the commitment is tough. Even Lysistrata considers breaking rank. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Myrrhine delivers a sultry and jazzy aria "Peace, yes, but what about love?" that sums up the women's issues.
What serves as counterbalance is a touching ballad where Nico sings that in war his heart and hands are not his own—"Athens gives me orders. I obey them; I do not weigh them." Despite the men walking around with uplifted tunics as direct reaction to the women withholding sexual favors and the Spartans speaking like Disney cartoon character Elmer Fudd, the underpinnings of this opera with rhythmically complicated music beg serious consideration. As Adamo's second opera following on his impressive success with Little Women, Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess also seems destined for multiple productions.
INGREDIENTS FOR SUCCESS
Stepping back, one notices first the contrasts between Dead Man Walking and Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess: tragic versus comic subjects, literary source: contemporary American nonfiction versus ancient Greek play, jazz-rock-spiritual mixed with lyric European influences like Benjamin Britten and Claude Debussy versus straight through melodic vocal line somewhat like Stephen Sondheim with dissonantly shaded orchestration punctuated with exotic percussion. The similarities between these two operas, such as balancing serious with comic (or vice-versus), addressing political fraught issues, and using a feminine lens to present these stories, are making them appeal to a wider audience (hopefully newcomers and younger operagoers) who in turn are making these new works part of the repertory of American opera. Dead Man Walking and Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess are the kind of success stories the American cultural scene needs more of.