Review: Oscar: “Bugger! Queer! Sodomite!” sang the chorus.

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond  the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.

I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera.  I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.

And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.

First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street”  sense of a heartbreaking story.  Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality.  And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court.  And of course, Wilde loses.  He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.

And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.

The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)

The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls.  The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.”  addressing him.  Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel.  It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)

In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing.  He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.

Bosie--Lord Alfred Douglas--haunting Wilde before the trial.

Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–haunting Wilde before the trial.

When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.

The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde.  As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for  high pitch.  Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body.  An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology.  Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.

The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.

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Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman in Oscar

In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies.  I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.

In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.

Dark Sisters: Polygamy, Broken Women and Song

I am going to try to write this without disparaging any religion. (Although I maintain my right to think that certain things are more than ridiculous. This is America, though, and one can usually worship however one pleases.) I am tolerant of most things as long as no one is hurt  And that is the litmus test that this particular sect fails. A sect that still believes in polygamy, in “perfect obedience” from wives, in children brought to marriage as they reach puberty–this is wrong-minded, de-humanizing and abusive.

I went to an opera Friday night–a friend’s niece was in a starring role. The opera was entitled Dark Sisters and dealt with a fictional raid on a polygamist ranch by government officials.  The raid closely paralleled similar raids that took place in the late 20th-century in southwest United States.

Written by Nico Muhly and Steven Karam, Dark Sisters opens with five wives mourning their children who have been taken from the ranch by the government. (Four hundred plus children have been removed.) The Father–the husband of these women and a supposed Prophet of God–tells them they must not mourn. They must “keep sweet.”  One of the wives, Eliza, bristles under her husband’s commands, worries for her children, and begins to doubt the rightness of their religion.

Another wife, Ruth,  is teetering on the edge of sanity. Her two young boys have died and Father has forbidden her to mourn. It is God’s will he explains. He also refused to allow her to seek medical care for the second son. (There is a hint that male children are unwanted and often put out of the compound. Sons are not breeders like the girl children and often can grow into rivals for the patriarchs.)

When Father goes out into the desert to pray, Eliza tries to make the other women realize what has happened. They refuse to believe her–although they almost come to her side–and see her as an apostate, a tool of the devil. For them the abuse, the sadness, the pain is the price they must pay in order to gain their heavenly reward where–significantly enough–they speak of joining their mothers and grandmothers, women who for generations have been part of this structure.

Eliza’s determination is hardened completely when she discovers that Father has arranged for the marriage of her fifteen year old daughter, Lucinda. She vows to speak the truth.

The second act begins with a news-magazine show covering the government’s raid on the ranch and interviewing the five wives.  The wives all parrot the beliefs of Father and their religion, proclaiming they are more free than the women in the real world, which they have never seen but only heard about from Father.  Only Eliza and Ruth dissent.  Eliza tries to speak her truth while Ruth’s testimony shows how dangerously fragile her psyche is becoming.

When the Supreme Court decides that the children must be returned to the ranch, life goes back to “normal” except for Eliza who has left.

Ruth decides-if that’s the right word in her distraught state–that she has had enough.  She climbs the mountain and throws herself off the cliff. (Eliza had hidden herself on the very same mountain as a girl on her wedding day before being found)

The last scene is Ruth’s funeral. Father and his five wives–he has replaced Eliza with a new favorite, her fifteen year old daughter–surround the grave. As they mouth their pieties, Eliza appears in modern but modest dress. She tries to convince them all of the truth of their imprisonment, but her arguments fall flat.

At last even her daughter,  whom she has tried so hard to liberate, turns against her. Taking Father’s hand, the young girl leaves her mother alone at the grave of the dead Ruth.

I know little about opera, and nothing about opera in English.  The story was riveting.  The set designs, the video pieces, the special effects were mesmerizing. And the music was beautiful and provocative.  I was not impressed with the lyrics, however. Maybe hearing an opera in English–instead of in French or in Italian or in German–takes something away from the magic and romance for a native-English speaker.  But many of the lyrics–while advancing the story–seemed artless. Commonplace. Perhaps it is simply the language.

Nevertheless, Darkest Sisters is an important piece.  For some reason, recent years have seen a surge of interest in polygamy.  There is the HBO series Big Love on television about a man and his wives and a reality-show Sister Wives that deals with a man and his four wives and combined children. Both shows deal with the difficulties of living in such large extended families, but neither really touches on the underside.

Dark Sisters does.  This is not a work debating the rightness or wrongness of government intrusion into private lives. That is not the focus of this piece.  Perhaps that is the subject for another piece. Dark Sisters focuses on a religious system where women are completely subservient, completely powerless, and –to my mind–completely brainwashed.

I don’t think anyone’s god should condone that.