An opera by Stephen Schwartz
Now that the Coen brothers, like the Marx brothers, have given us their version of Go West, I wonder what’s taking them so long to put in an appearance At the Opera. No other genre could better frame their fables of remorseless destiny turning up the heat on any number of vapid but not unlikeable people who have taken just one small step out of line — a little recreational adultery, say, or ripping off dead drug dealers, or blackmailing your wife’s lover—- that leads to a cascade of violent and horrifying complications. Sounds exactly like opera to me. Rigoletto pulling his dying daughter out of the sack—there’s a perfect Coen plot point for you.
Long before the Coens, though, there was Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the 1964 film by Bryan Forbes that appears on many not-to-be-missed lists, deservedly, but not exclusively, on account of the performance by Kim Stanley, who was given the dramatic space in which to deploy her talents, and a director who was up to the job of coaxing them from her. But Richard Attenborough seldom receives credit for the masterful way he nails the character of Billy, the devoted husband who enables the fantasies that sustain the shabby existence he shares with middle-aged Myra, the failed medium who is convinced she truly has the gift. Until one day….. um, Joel? Ethan? Love and obsession, tragedy and damnation? The stuff of which opera is made.
Apparently Stephen Schwartz, the composer of wildly successful musicals like Wicked and Godspell, thought so, too. He was assisted by one of the neatest little story arcs that ever begged to be turned into a libretto, formulated originally in the 1961 novel by Mark McShane on which Forbes based his unsettling masterwork. In book, film and opera, Myra bullies and cajoles the submissive Billy into going along with her mad scheme to ‘borrow’ (meaning kidnap) a child, as a pretext to stage a séance at which the media would shower her with attention when her ‘psychic powers’ allow police to recover the victim unharmed, along with the ransom money.
As befits the current top dog in the American musical theatre, Schwartz’s score stays resolutely melodic as it reiterates its themes at key points throughout the two-act drama. This absence of any serious attempt at development makes it hard to believe that Séance on a Wet Afternoon is trying terribly hard to be a real opera. Though he steers commendably clear of the minor chords and kettle drum rolls that film composers might use to ratchet up suspense, he cannot resist having the plucked harp cue the supernatural. The most musically ambitious part comes in the final séance, building to a grand climax of dissonances, superimposed vocal lines and colliding instrumental phrases. Even discounting the Broadway bathos, the score still comes across as underweight and keeping too safe a distance from its subject matter— the stuff of which real-life horror is made.
Myra is splendidly sung and acted by Lauren Flanagan, who premiered the role in a 2009 production at the Santa Barbara Opera. Schwartz is over-eager to write for the soprano voice and succumbs to the urge to ratchet up an aria’s final phrase for no other good reason than to end on an ‘operatic’ high and get an applause. Melody Moore, the other soprano, in the role of the missing girl’s despairing mother, takes ownership of the work’s most emotionally engaging and musically accomplished aria.
As played and sung by Kim Josephson, Bill is never tasked with anything musically complex enough to illuminate the contradictions that drive him to damnation. If he so dotes on the little girl, then why does he make her submit to the horror? One of the things McShane got exactly right (glossed over by Forbes and Schwartz) is the utter despair experienced until quite recently by severe asthmatics like Bill. The story as originally written takes place in 1950s Britain, before modern corticoids were introduced. Until then, asthma was considered a psychological disorder, rather than taken seriously as the life-threatening inflammatory disease that it is. The etiology of Bill’s dependency on Myra proceeds from his total helplessness, the knowledge that he will never, ever be more than a gasp away from asphyxiation.
McShane’s Myra is deluded, Forbes’s Myra is deluded and manipulative, and Schwartz’s (he wrote the libretto; and it is not bad at all) is delusional, manipulative and ruthless. This becomes apparent as cracks appear in the facade of loving solicitousness that is the bulwark of her relationship with Bill. When Lucia di Lammermoor lets loose with ‘Il dolce suono’ there can be no doubt that Lucia has lost it. The same happens to Myra about midway through the second act, when Bill tells her a truth she does not want to hear. This truth is essential to resolving Schwartz’s major dilemma. For in order for this to work, as novel, film, or opera, that sweet, innocent little girl they kidnapped has to die, or there goes the plot.
Now let it be noted that opera has never been a particularly child-friendly environment, a situation that goes back at least to the kiddies butchered off-stage by Cherubini’s Medea. Or consider the boy apprentices in Peter Grimes: zip, zap, and overboard they go. For outrageous child abuse, though, it’s hard to beat Janaçek’s Jenûfa, in which a baby is drowned in the river like a mewing kitten, and by its own grandmother, no less. Conclusion; if you must slaughter the innocent, it is best if you do so in Italian, or better yet, Czech. But if there is no getting round the business, all you can do is extenuate it and hope you will somehow retain the audience’s sympathy by emphasising that well, yes, Myra is a child killer, but it’s not really her fault.
Yeah, good luck with that one. In the McShane book, Billy inadvertently smothers her with a pillow while trying to keep her from crying out. An accident – well, nearly. Forbes, however, makes Billy carry out Myra’s orders cold-bloodedly after the girl has seen his face and can identify him. What Schwartz does is to make Myra the murderer, but attenuates it with her crazed conviction that she is following orders from the spirit world, delivered by the apparition of her long dead son. In other words, not guilty by reason of bonkers. But even so…
You can only take a thing so far. You can deal with horror on its own terms, but then, you’d have to write a real opera. Or you can try to make the unpalatable palatable by putting it across with the conventions of the American musical. If you want morbid with your sentimental, imagine a work highlighted by suicide, supernatural jiggery pokery and acts of violence against women culminating with a slap in the face that ‘feels like a kiss’. What you’d get is Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and a million dollars in box office receipts.
But that’s not the same as opera, and you can’t have it both ways. The recently deceased Mexican composer Daniel Catán, as quoted by critic Robert R Reilly, described the relevant difference succinctly when he argued that:
‘what opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one – that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.’
Hear, hear. The bottom line distinction that works against Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon is not the quivering line of demarcation that has opera on the one side and mass-market musicals on the other, but that which separates the representation of real evil from mere Wicked.