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Kaspar Hauser: Opera for the Full Body

Because the Dresser wears many hats, her reach is larger than the average critic in the following way. On February 13, 2009 as president of The Word Works, she was in Chicago at the Associated Writing Programs convention where she expected to hear composer Elizabeth Swados speak on the panel "Page to Stage: How Fiction, Non-Fiction, or Poetry Becomes Theater." Moderator Susan Terris commented that Ms. Swados was absent because her new opera was going into previews much sooner than expected and had remained in New York.


In 1985, the Dresser merely known in those days as an undercover poet working for the Federal Department of Justice (yes, she had those credentials that she could flip open like an F.B. I. agent) attended the New Playwrights Theater (a DC theater company now defunct) production of Swados' music theater piece The Beautiful Lady, which focused on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite never opening in New York, The Beautiful Lady won Swados a Helen Hayes Award. The undercover poet loved Swados' music and the whole ambiance of the Stray Dog Café where that story unfolds. Someone the poet was close to in those days (he is now dead) made a bad bootlegged recording of the live show. The Dresser wonders whatever happened to those cassettes, but knows they should have never been made in the first place. Now the Dresser notices that Swados does not mention this work on her website. Swados has clearly had much bigger successes with other work such as her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways.

Officially opening February 28, Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera concerns a wild child found on the streets of Nuremburg, Germany in 1828. The Dresser saw this high energy and emotionally loaded show February 19 in spite of the fact that producers and directors do not usually allow journalists into a show in previews. But then, on the other hand, the Dresser is not your ordinary opinion maker and had come to New York that weekend to promote Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts.

In The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, the author wrote that Americans fear poetry because it puts the reader in touch with his or her emotions and often leads to disclosure. Rukeyser also says poetry contains so much truth and encourages so much communication that people cannot handle the power of poetry. This is exactly the level at which Elizabeth Swados works.


When the Dresser entered The Flea to find an empty seat, she had to walk across the staging area and close to Preston Martin already in role as the chained up teenager Kaspar Hauser. Kaspar was rolling a toy horse on wheels back and forth. Because Kaspar had been kept alone in a dungeon, the boy had not learned to speak. KasparInChains.jpg

KasparsMom.jpgInformed up front, the audience knew that Kaspar was stolen from his mother immediately after his birth. The mother was told he died and the audience sees her grieving throughout the play. Eliza Poehlman as Kaspar's bereaved mom makes a sympathetic performance in this role, but the Dresser wanted to get out of her seat and take the beautiful longhaired woman by the hand and put her face-to-face with Kaspar after he was released from his dungeon into public view.

The focus of Swados' opera, which has a libretto co-written by playwright Erin Courtney, is on communication, particularly as it affects truth. Throughout the opera, the people of the town where Kaspar emerges into the world are swayed by inflammatory gossip about the boy even to the degree that the crowd psychology made the Dresser think of Nazi Germany. Given the town is Nuremburg, site in the twentieth century of the trials for the prosecution of Hitler's leading government and military officials, the leap seems just as likely as thinking the setting with an unfortunate foundling could be Charles Dickens' London.DickensLookSm.jpg


The power of Swados' music in Kaspar Hauser translates as a complete body experience, particularly when the cast known as The Bats belt out and move in a choral number. (The Bats make up the young resident company whose members get selected competitively and who perform in long runs of demanding classics and new plays at The Flea.) Crowd.jpgEven if the floor of The Flea were more rigidly stable, the vibration from the emotionally charged music and words would be enough to shake up everyone seated or standing in the house. In a couple of the mob scenes, the Dresser thinks Swados has created a scary rave where the crowd alternately looks like they are dancing in strobe lights or are raucously pounding the floor with their feet. Maybe like Elizabeth Swados, who had a difficult childhood, the Dresser is susceptible to stories where children are abused. Nonetheless, something more than child abuse happens in this work.


Some of the imagery in the opera provokes questions. Why is Kaspar assassinated in the shadow of a statue of a poet? Why is Kaspar's unknown father depicted as a horseman? While the story of Kaspar Hauser comes from real life, the story of Swados' opera contains variations on the unsolved case about who this foundling was. In both versions, the question arises was Kaspar an impostor? Did he kill himself? Swados, however, makes it clear Kaspar was an innocent.

One compelling story variation involves Lord Henry Stanhope (played with appropriate arrogance by Marshall York) whom costume designer Normandy Sherwood dresses in a red Mephistophelean outfit of breeches and cutaway coat. Stanhope-KasparSM.jpgIn real life, Stanhope may have been a benevolent caretaker of Kaspar, but in the opera, he is under the thumb of Kaspar's mother's evil stepsister Louisa (Beth Griffith) who seemed to have orchestrated the kidnapping of the infant boy. Once Kaspar comes out in the light of day, Louisa worries that her son (who ascended in royal rank after Kaspar's so-called death) and she will be deposed. Therefore she blackmails Stanhope about some misdeed he carried out and orders him to 'take care' of Kaspar in some kind of final solution. In their duets, Griffith as Louisa and York as Stanhope effectively pour forth their evil, which stands in stark contrast to the abused boy's innocence.

Experiencing the work of Swados again makes the Dresser want to see more of what she offers as well as more productions by The Flea, which was co-founded by the playwright Mac Wellman, a poet The Word Works published in 1977 (In Praise of Secrecy). In her book The Bag of Broken Glass, Yerra Sugarman has many poems that speak to themes put forth in Kaspar Hauser. The Dresser offers "The Dominion of the Name," the last section of the four-part poem "The Boundaries of the Body," as an echo to the tension Swados sets up between the two royal stepsisters.


I was a moth, Hagar's
motherhood the light
that burnt me.

A wound, the calendar made me
feel shame,

my bones scuffed with time,
barely useful.

Then God changed our names:
to Sarah and Abraham.
And we laughed until our throats hurt

when we learned I'd give birth,
although we knew we might never
live to see our child grown.

I'd thought it could work:
our two boys raised together.

Might it have worked?

Ishmael and Isaac --
one river splitting at the mouth
to an interminably violent sea.

by Yerrra Sugarman 

from The Bag of Broken Glass
Copyright © 2008 Yerrra Sugarman

Photos by Ryan Jensen


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 27, 2009 9:12 AM.

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