A few years ago I heard that the Santa Fe Opera would be doing an opera about Oscar Wilde in 2013. Although I'm hot and cold about the Santa Fe Opera and opera in general, I have seen about five of their shows (years ago in regular expensive seats and now usually in standing-room only). I was excited there would be a new opera about a famously flamboyant writer.
Monsieur Big Bang took me to see the show two weeks ago, playing its second night of a World Premiere. We did the $15 SRO and unfortunately the house was packed so we never had the opportunity to be moved up to un-purchased seats. Due to our move and preparations for the writing sequester weekend, I was already exhausted and had to prop myself up for most of the show.
The opera focuses on Wilde's persecution for "gross indecency," the first half building up to his sentencing and his refusal to flee and the second half dealing with his time in jail. We spend no time learning of his early successes in criticism and theater or about his life after prison. And this is by design. The opera is solely about his persecution for being unapologetically gay.
In some ways I get this and in some ways I miss those lost plot points. We never see Oscar at work writing or being witty at parties and salons. We do get to hear some of his amazing children's tales and their stunning metaphors (but only a line here or there). The play also glamorizes Wilde somewhat and by not addressing his tragic after-prison life, this reinforces that. In truth, Wilde probably should have fled. He ended up exiled in France anyway, mistreated and broke. By fleeing, he would have probably salvaged more of a life for himself. The play tries to give him honor in facing the dragon.
I love the program artwork for the show. It shows an iconic portrait of Wilde built out of his famous lines. I bought a t-shirt of it. I loved some of the opera's figurative special effects as well: the jack-in-the-box judge, the crib that becomes prison bars.
What's special about the Santa Fe Opera is not only the quality of its programs but the uniqueness of its dedication to all types of opera fans (from tourists to obscurists), its interest in showcasing new operas and its stage design which opens out to display the scrub of juniper hills stage right and the Santa Fe mountains (through the stage and to the left). Many shows also include some dramatic weather in the background. I have also come to really enjoy the free lectures before shows.
During the Oscar lecture, we delved into some of his best aphorisms, an overview of the aesthetic movement, a bit of his biography, and we were read in entirely two of his tales for children (beautiful long poems surely), "The Happy Prince" and "The Nightingale and the Rose." We also learned about the opera's musical motifs and some supposedly familiar half-steps that were not familiar at all to me.
How does the opera handle Lord Alfred Douglas? I really liked how they handled him actually. "Bosie" was represented in the Ellman biography and in the opera lecture as an irresponsible, spoiled rich kid. He does not speak or sing in the opera but is ever-present as an obsessive thought in Oscar's mind. His character takes many guises but is always recognizable as the thin, effeminate Boise who performs a series of ballet segments that become very passionate and physical with Oscar.
The opera also includes a characterization of Walt Whitman who serves as kind of a guiding angel for Wilde. He is dressed all in white with a straw hat. His shadow looms large over the set. The opera merges his writings with Oscar Wilde's regarding the soul and the body. Frank Harris is another large character in the book. Harris was a publisher and friend of Oscar's who wrote the first famous (but inaccurate) biography of Oscar Wilde. William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw are also mentioned in the opera as supporters of Oscar during his trial.
Monsieur Big Bang is actually an opera-aficionado (unlike a more ambivalent me) and he enjoyed the opera; but as he said, you won't come out of this one humming an aria. The music seems understated in service of the story. I feel this way about most of the more obscure operas I've seen in Santa Fe. The local fans we know here are liking the opera, being fans of its star, but the reviews have been mixed. Some local fans have told us all new operas seem to get mixed reviews by default.
The opera was directed by Kevin Newbury and written by Theodore Morrison and John Cox especially for newly famous countertenor David Daniels. Creators felt he was a good match for Wilde's alleged Mezzo-like voice.
Although the opera doesn't cover the breadth of Wilde's life, its aim is more to serve up a message and a warning in light of current events. Near the end of the opera the character of Oscar says, "I have made my choice; I have lived my poems." I respect not only that sentiment but these opera creator's choices of focus in not letting a rambling biography limit them in telling the story they wanted to tell.