Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oscar Wilde: The opera synopsis

Supposedly the Met has commissioned someone to compose an opera based on the life of Oscar Wilde, to star David Daniels who is running out of Handel works of Metropolitan caliber. Apparently someone else attempted an opera of Wilde's life for the Granite State Opera a few years ago, but it was never completed. Who knows where this will lead in an era where everyone seems to think he (or she) can write an opera but no one actually does it well. Can the librettos be at fault? (Probably not; they're mostly by Sandy McClatchy.) In any case, my friend Jeanne on the David Daniels Fans List asked if anyone knew enough about Wilde's life to sketch out a scenario.

A witch once said she thought I'd been Oscar Wilde in a previous life. I said, "Possibly ... but not in HIS." (Even my inner doubt has never impelled me to quite so self-destructive a working-out.) (I don't think.) But I have helped Jeanne out thus:

The Wilde Life !

Prologue: 1900:
Dying of tuberculosis in Paris (“Either the wallpaper goes or I do”), Oscar Wilde (countertenor) (all right, I see him as a baritone, maybe Mariusz Kwiecien, but the commission is for David Daniels) reflects upon a life mispent … drifting back to:

Act I, scene 1:
A Tuesday evening soiree chez Stephane Mallarm√© in Paris, c. 1891, where Wilde (in knee-breeches, with a huge tiger lily in his hand) has been reading his new symbolist drama, Salome, hoping Sarah Bernhardt (mezzo soprano) will perform it (she has sung Salome’s last speech in a very un-Straussian style - part Gluck, part Massenet). Wilde is toasted by the crowd for his wit and defiance of prim British hypocrisy. Friends, however, urge him to tone down his decadence since rumors of his misbehavior with telegraph boys and so forth may get about. He pooh-poohs their fears and flirts with an aristocratic young poet, Lord Alfred Douglas (baritone), an undergraduate at Oxford … as the party falls away behind them, Wilde begins to sing elaborate lyrics to Alfred’s beauty. We understand that, in Wilde’s fever dream, his mind has shifted from the night they met to the height of their affair. "We were destined to meet here tonight, Oscar! It's an omen of a glorious new world, awakened to beauty!" "Oh my dear Bosey - there are no such things as omens. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that."

Act I, scene 2:
A gossiping triple chorus – aristocrats resenting Wilde for sneering at them, middle class types outraged at Wilde for making fun of their aspirations by exalting Art for Art’s Sake, street toughs threatening to do violence to a grown man who wears velvet and knee breeches and a green carnation. These sneers are heard by a lady walking through the crowd, arriving in her home and collapsing.

Act I, scene 3:
She is Constance Wilde (soprano), she’s heard all the stories about her husband, she hopes they’re not true – but she knows he ignores her these days. Her mother-in-law, the poetess Speranza (mezzo soprano), arrives, refuses to hear anything bad about her son, and urges Constance to dress more unconventionally, the sure way to win back a straying husband. Wilde finally comes downstairs – it’s mid-afternoon, he’s just getting up – and they beg him to spend the evening at home en famille. He pays them both extravagant compliments – then a telegram arrives. This, he says, summons him to a special performance he must attend. While tipping the telegraph boy, Ernest (tenor) – whom we saw earlier as one of the nastiest of the street toughs – he offers him a tip if he (the boy) will meet him at a brothel that evening. The boy is delighted to accept.

Act II, scene 1: 1895:
An ecstatic prelude leads into the crowd at the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, cheering Wilde to the echo. As he leaves the theater, congratulations on every hand, someone hands him a note. The Marquess of Queensberry (Alfred’s father) has written: “To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite.” [sic] Wilde’s world falls apart (as shown by the tonality of his aria, which is in violent contrast to that of the chorus of praise, still heard in the background, the words subtly changing to condemnation). Despite the apprehension of several friends, urged on by Alfred, he resolves to sue the marquess for libel.

Act II, scene 2:
Trial scene – or rather, several trial scenes, run together in his fevered brain: The prosecutor (bass) trips him up by quoting the love letter Wilde sang to Lord Alfred in Act I, and the telegraph boy Ernest begins damning testimony joined by three other young boys, Constance begs him to flee the country before he is prosecuted for criminal behavior, and at the climax the Judge (spoken part) intones a sentence of Two Years Hard Labour.

Act III, scene 1:
1897: Wilde, in his cell, a broken man, is haunted by the voices of his mother and his wife, both of whom have died of grief. He apostrophizes an imaginary Lord Alfred, who responds with contempt – in the same words the street crowd used of him in Act II. The real Lord Alfred comes in as a visitor and tries to be reassuring, but Wilde is listening to his hallucinations, and Alfred gives up. Wilde begins to sing several stanzas of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Act III, scene 2:
1900: Back in Paris, tossing around bits of De Profundis, mourning that he has never found true love and that, since his wife is dead, he is forbidden by her relations to see his sons, Wilde sings of the cruel world that frowns on beauty and love … and at the end realizes that he destroyed himself out of a wish to identify with Christ and be martyred for love. He stands in cross-attitude, singing of his bleeding wounds and of his wit that will redeem humanity.

© 2009, John Yohalem


Anonymous said...

As someone involved with that Granite State Opera workshop, I'll point out the interesting tidbit that the librettist, in our case, was attorney, soon-to-be congressman and now senatorial candidate Paul Hodes (D-NH). The composer's name was Thomas Oboe Lee (Boston).

Anonymous said...

The boys in the trial scene should be a barbershop quartet. Even the bass should be dressed and made up as a young boy, though; this will increase the surreality of the scene. A barbershop quartet in the middle of an opera is pretty godsdamned surreal too! (Of course, they couldn't use opera singers for that part--opera singers are physically unable to sing barbershop, which is straight-tone.)