13 April 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 5

So happy to be in Dallas: Susan Graham as Tina.
Photo ©Karen Almond, courtesy of Dallas Opera.

Even as I find myself drawn back to my old homeland by the very thing that enabled me to escape — and one of the things that made escape seem necessary — I see other friends whose experience parallels mine. The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham grew up in Midland, Texas, and last night she made her debut with the Dallas Opera, the very company where I heard so many singers in so much wonderful music for the first time.

I sometimes describe Susan as my secret twin, because we have so much almost in common. And our experiences in this case don’t quite match up: I merely listen to music, while she did something with it, and music became the engine that drove her all the way to New York, the Manhattan School of Music and the Metropolitan Opera — and beyond.

Music has drawn Susan back to Texas on several occasions, including numerous performances in productions at Houston Grand Opera that range from Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea to Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, the very piece that I’ll be performing in Fort Worth next month. Friends from Midland come down for the show — sometimes they rent a bus — and a gang of them will be coming to Dallas, too, for The Aspern Papers. If you’re anywhere near Dallas, you should think about joining the pilgrimage.

Nathan Gunn as the Lodger, with Susan as Tina.
The Aspern Papers, Dallas Opera 2013.
Photo ©Karen Almond, courtesy of Dallas Opera.

Dominick Argento’s opera has been given a compelling production by Tim Albery and a spectacular cast, and with Dallas Opera’s music director Graeme Jenkins conducting. Argento’s libretto opens up the eponymous novella — which was my introduction to Henry James and to which my first novel owes such a debt that I really ought to grant him co-authorship. Here the American poet Jeffrey Aspern is made a composer, the better for us to experience his work, but the central relationships remain largely unchanged.

So you have Susan lending the warm sensuality of her voice to a character who is, right up until she sees the Lodger, terribly, even tragically repressed; gradually Tina opens herself to the possibilities of a wider world. The Lodger, sung by Nathan Gunn, exercises the easy affability of a good-looking guy who’s not quite so clever as he thinks: he believes himself in complete command of a complex situation, while in reality, he’s at the mercy of two women. As Juliana, who in her youth is Aspern’s lover and in her old age is Tina’s aunt, Alexandra Deshorties displays an aptly fiery temperament quite unlike anybody else’s in this opera. No wonder the others don’t know how to handle her.

Alexandra Deshorties as Juliana, with Susan and Nathan Gunn.
The Aspern Papers, Dallas Opera 2013.
Photo ©Karen Almond, courtesy of Dallas Opera.

Argento’s score is moody and often lush, in a thoroughly tonal musical language that sounds as if it comes from a time just between Puccini and Berg, eschewing conventional melodies and yet respecting formal structures. Those who aren’t hardcore devotees of modern music will find this piece accessible, I think. Aspern Papers was Dallas Opera’s first commission, 25 years ago, with a cast that included Frederica von Stade, Elisabeth Söderström, and Richard Stilwell; the production was telecast on PBS, and I remembered it with admiration but little precision. Its return now, in this new production, is welcome, and the company is right to be proud of it.*

My date for the evening was Joyce Castle, who has sung to considerable acclaim in two other operas by Argento, Casanova’s Homecoming and The Dream of Valentino. We spoke briefly with him after the performance before going backstage to congratulate Susan. I was acutely conscious that the last time I went backstage at Dallas Opera, I was going to interview Beverly Sills for the high-school paper — the beginning of a career in journalism that would one day lead me to interview such notables as … Joyce Castle and Susan Graham.

Joyce Castle as Alla Nazimova
in Argento’s Dream of Valentino.
Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Joyce Castle.

I was also conscious that I was in the company of two dear friends whom I’ve gotten to know because of opera — and that the fact that both women have connections to Texas (Joyce was born in Beaumont, though she didn’t stay long, and she has family there) was something that I’d have found thrilling and rather difficult to believe.

After all, for most of my years in Texas, opera was a primarily solitary pursuit. My two closest friends, Karen and Kevin, took an interest in opera, but neither found in it the passion that became, almost from the first note I heard, absolutely essential to my continued existence. Certain grownups — notably my godparents, as well as Mrs. Morini, my English teacher; and Frau Terry, my German teacher — were more enthusiastic, and more overt than my father, a secret opera buff. But these were grownups, not people my age. The only kid I knew who loved opera as much as I did, was a Wagnerite. I barely knew what to make of that.

Backstage at Dallas Opera, 1976:
Sills speaks — to me.
Photo by Christopher Burnley.

Really, it’s just since coming to Fort Worth Opera that I began to feel a part of an opera community within the Texas borders. Over the years since my first visit, in 2003, several friendships developed here, originally (I think) because I was a critic who understood what the company was trying to do: folks were glad to see me. But growing up, I despaired of finding such a community. I had to come to New York City to find people like me.

There’s a new reality, one which we often enough acknowledge this reality in discussions of sexuality, though it holds for opera, too: for young people today, the relative isolation I used to feel may no longer exist, or at least the remedies are closer to hand, because of the Internet. A kid need only log on in order to find plenty of others who feel just as strongly about opera as she does. She needn’t run from her own beginnings, as I did. She may even be free to be herself.

The Aspern Papers by Dominick Argento
Dallas Opera
April 12, 14, 17, 20, 18
At the Winspear Opera House

For more information and tickets, click here.

Composer–librettist Dominick Argento.

*NOTE: My full review should appear in the coming days at the Italian online magazine GBOpera.it

1 comment:

Anne said...

Your writing ability along with your passion for the subject, that does not merely tremble on the edge of the religious, but wonderfully leaps into the realm, made this a delight to read.

Your passion makes opera holy

And what is the holy?

Among other things, it is whatever compels us to put our heart on a platter and leave it at an alter as an offering.