Huffpost Arts
Susanne Mentzer Headshot

Opera for the New World

Posted: Updated:

Opera is in effect sung theater. Opera, like theater, can be thought-provoking, historical, educational and a reflection of our society. Historically is has been used as a commentary on contemporary life. I would encourage many opera novices to look into the historical context of some of the works in the operatic cannon of over 200 years. While often considered old-fashioned, stuffy or otherwise too long, one's enjoyment of opera can really be enhanced through understanding the context.

I write from Santa Fe, NM and even the Le Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro), in which I am currently performing, has roots in the pre-French revolution. It is based on the 1784 play by the French writer Pierre Beaumarchais, who had to set the scene in Spain in order to not be censored. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte seized on the opportunity to produce this and it premiered in Vienna only two years later, even though the actual play was forbidden for being too racy.

In light of the SCOTUS ruling of June 26, 2013 I thought I would share some news from the opera world.

There are at least three new operas premiering in the US this summer that touch on somewhat controversial topics. I cannot imagine a more appropriate use of the art form. I remember witnessing the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, a sequel to his popular Trouble in Tahiti from 1951, itself a commentary on contemporary life in post-WWII America. (Interestingly, this prolific composer only wrote three operas. The third, sometimes considered a musical theater work, is Candide). It was 1983 at the Houston Grand Opera, when AIDS had just reared its ugly head and the audience was not quite comfortable with the topics of suicide and "outed" characters in the sequel. The opera went on to be performed at La Scala in Milan and more recently at the New York City Opera.

I also remember the premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China, a topic for an opera which, at the time, seemed absurd but was a huge success and has had multiple subsequent performances throughout the world.

Two of the new works this summer deal with homosexuality and the persecution thereof.

The Santa Fe Opera is presenting Oscar, composed by Theodore Morrison with a libretto by John Cox who will also direct.

Cox writes:

Walt Whitman met Oscar Wilde during the young Irish poet's lecture tour of the USA in 1882. Walt was at the height of his fame, whereas Oscar was merely a celebrity lecturer explaining the new Aesthetic Movement to the American public. He had at this point written nothing to hint at his enduring genius. By the time Oscar met Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, Walt was dead while Oscar was very famous. It is from his vantage point of Immortality that Walt presents our opera, revealing to us the catastrophe that Oscar's love for Bosie brought about.

Bosie Douglas was the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry, and they despised one another. Oscar soon found himself in the crossfire of their enmity when Queensberry raised public objection to Oscar's relationship with his son, imputing a sexual basis to it. Bosie forced Oscar to sue Queensberry for libel, hoping thereby to disgrace him, but Queensberry won the case, so the disgrace fell on Oscar. He was rapidly put on trial, convicted and jailed for "gross indecency."

Champion premiered earlier this month at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis too much acclaim. I so wish I could have seen it. The following is taken from the Opera Theater's website:

With music by the five-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer, Champion is inspired by the true story of Emile Griffith. An immigrant from the Virgin Islands, Emile claimed the title of World Welterweight Champion in a fatal 1962 fight which, (supposedly after a taunt about his sexuality), transformed him into a tragic hero and left the two-year old son of his opponent, Benny "The Kid" Paret, without a father.
Champion begins over 40 years later, on the morning Emile is to meet his opponent's son, now a grown man, for the first time. Flooded by memories of his career, his checkered personal life and a terrible attack that exposed his greatest personal secret, Emile embarks on the universal journey of any hero -- finding himself in the face of his greatest tragedy.

The third opera is on the controversial subject of Mary Magdalene's relationship with Jesus Christ. The San Francisco Opera has produced Mark Adamo's The Passion of Mary Magdalene. David Gockley, the General Director of the company, formerly of Houston Grand Opera at the time of A Quiet Place and Nixon in China, has commissioned more world premieres than any other American impresario -- 40 by the most recent count.

Mark Adamo writes:

No Gospel was written as history. But every gospel -- not only those included in the New Testament -- contains fragments of the history of Jesus of Nazareth and of those who followed him. In 2007 I wondered: could you develop from those fragments a credibly human original version of the story that we know only through its later, magical embellishments? In such a new New Testament, might its women characters speak as eloquently as its men? (The Gnostic Gospels suggest as much.) And might such a story gain, rather than lose, nobility, breadth, passion, nerve, if -- instead of the usual saints, angels and sinners -- it centered on human beings making momentous decisions guided only by painful experience, moral intuition and the light they have to see by? The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is my answer.

If you are weary of sitting through an opera in a foreign language or are attracted to great theater you should try to see one of these historical works.

Opera is alive and well and living in America. Moreover, it is inclusive. Let's keep it that way.