The Center Theater isn't exactly a glamorous opera house. But Norfolk isn't exactly New York, and the Virgina Opera Assn. certainly isn't the Met.

The 18,000-seat, concrete relic of the WPA in this old Navy town was, for a few hours the other day, an unlikely focal point in the operatic universe. The Beautiful People who adore the lyric muse, or who at least carry on a conspicuous flirtation, descended en masse. So did a national broadcasting team and the international press.

The marquee didn't just herald the name of the work on display. It conveyed a message fraught with purple extramusical significance: "HER VALOR WILL LIVE AGAIN IN SONG."

This might have led an innocent visitor to expect a musical version of "Portia Faces Life" at worst, a grass-roots "Fidelio" at best. But the Virginians were exhuming no soap opera and attempting no flights of Germanic heroism.

The valor in question involved the sacrifices and triumphs of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who repeatedly risked life and limb to conduct others northward on the Underground Railroad. The song in question was the work of Thea Musgrave, a cosmopolitan composer who now divides her time between Norfolk and Santa Barbara.

"Harriet, the Woman Called Moses" could only strike the uninitiated as a curio. Here was a new opera about the struggle for freedom in the Deep South of a not-so-distant America, commissioned by the modest but adventurous Virginia Opera in conjunction with the Royal Opera of London.

Here was a romantic, ultra-serious social statement containing spirituals and gospel tunes and folk themes--most genuine, some fabricated.

Here was a musical drama about a black woman from the Maryland of 1820, written by a white woman from Scotland who has lived in America for 15 of her 56 years.

Ironically, the Musgrave premiere took place only a few weeks after the mighty Met lavished chandeliered shelter for the first time upon a black opera: "Porgy and Bess." George Gershwin's perspective of abject misery and strange alliances in Catfish Row--like Musgrave's perspective of the prelude to our Civil War--filtered the black experience through white sensibilities. Although Gershwin's sensibilities were essentially those of the Broadway of the 1930s, the Met treated his opera, at 50, with the lumbering and pristine reverence usually reserved for "Parsifal."

"Harriet" got mixed notices in Norfolk. Everyone admired the obviously lofty intentions of the composer and her collaborators. Not everyone admired the sometimes banal realization of those intentions.

"Porgy" got mixed notices in New York. Everyone liked the idea of serious, resourceful homage to Gershwin in America's leading opera house. Everyone agreed the attention was overdue. Not everyone liked the bombastic, old-fashioned production the Met invested; not everyone agreed that the intrinsic musical and dramatic values were well served in the big, stodgy house at Lincoln Center.

In both cases, observers searched for cultural, historical and sociological revelations. Some saw "Harriet" and "Porgy" as proof that black sympathies were finally finding their way into the deepest recesses of our artistic consciences and, as a consequence, black opera was at last finding its rightful place on our traditional stages. Others complained that both Musgrave and Gershwin trivialized honest black pathos with naive theatrical cliches.

"Harriet" and "Porgy" would, no doubt, have been different operas if they had been written by black composers. Duke Ellington dismissed the "lampblack Negroisms" of Gershwin's opera, at the time of its premiere, as a white man's caricature. More than one critic found Musgrave's references to black stereotypes in both music and word unwittingly patronizing.

Similar attacks have been leveled, of course, at Puccini, who didn't feel he had to be American to make music of "amore" in the Golden West, Chinese to write of Princess Turandot in Peking, or Japanese to lend poignancy to the predicament of Madama Butterfly. Bizet survived the argument that his Spanish Gypsy sounded French. Even Verdi endured a few contemporary complaints because he, an Italian, dared set an opera in ancient Egypt.

It would be good if, in 1985, we could point with pride to a number of model operas on black themes by black composers. Unfortunately, such operas don't seem to exist. Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" is little more than beguiling entertainment, however authentic that entertainment may be. William Grant Still's output--what little we know of it--appears to suffer limitations in scope and significance.

It is impossible to say whether the scarcity of authentic black operas relates to the scarcity of black composers, or to the scarcity of outlets for black composers. Be that as it may, no one writes an opera for the fun of it. That is certain. And not many opera houses have offered to stage works by blacks. That, too, is certain.

For better or worse, works like "Porgy" and "Harriet" are all we have. Perhaps we should not ask how black these operas are. Perhaps we should just ask how good they are.

Thea Musgrave decided that she wanted to write an opera for black singers back in 1980 when her husband, Peter Mark, the general director of Virginia Opera, was holding auditions for a production of--what else?--"Porgy and Bess." In an affecting program note, she explains why she chose to write about Harriet Tubman:

"Composers are drawn to subjects that cross political and temporal boundaries and venture into different, often exotic, settings for their works. For in addition to making one's work a satisfying emotional experience for the audience, most composers want to underline and emphasize the eternal nature of human conflicts and emotions which transcend time and place. The artist is accustomed to making the leap in his or her imagination into the feelings and lives of people very different from himself, yet impelled and moved by the same motivations. Harriet is every woman who dared to defy injustice and tyranny--she is Joan of Arc, she is Susan B. Anthony, she is Anne Frank, she is Mother Teresa."

She also is Fidelio. But Musgrave, alas, is not Beethoven.

Her score is splendidly crafted, deftly orchestrated. It makes knowing use of accessible set pieces--the contemplative aria, the impassioned duet, the agitated ensemble, the exultant chorus--that flow into each other with carefully gauged, cumulative impact.

Musgrave cannily fuses familiar tunes with tunes that are not familiar but seem to be. She juggles specifically ethnic idioms and all-purpose romantic idioms gracefully. She makes grateful use of the human voice.

"This music," she says, "is more subjective, more spiritual than what I have written before. Maybe becoming American has made me lyrical."

Unfortunately, none of this means that "Harriet" can sing with a voice of compelling individuality, or that the opera can easily combine poor folk's sentiments with lofty operatic rhetoric. Often, the elaborate music seems elaborately mechanical, the expression stilted, the pathos dutiful.

Much of the problem can be traced to Musgrave's own libretto. The composer claims to have made liberal use of Harriet Tubman's words as quoted in two biographies. She acknowledges advice from an expert on the syntax and vocabulary of the American South. She thanks Gordon Davidson, the stage director, for "all his invaluable help in the general planning of the libretto and for his skill in helping shape historical and 'emotional' events into dramatic form."

Nevertheless, the text is a clumsy compendium of primitive and contradictory cliches. The characters communicate either in minstrel-show drivel ("Us should get married real soon and have us a whole bunch of chillens!") or in operatic pretension with a British flavor ("All he speaks of is justice and respect. . . . Confound him! Curse him!").

The story, Musgrave admits, is "very freely based" on the historical fact. She invokes George Garrett: "I have done my best to be faithful to the facts while striving to preserve the freedom of fiction, which means there may be distortions and there will be mistakes, but I hope there are no lies."

There are lies. The worst one involves an invented character, Josiah. He provides fictitious love interest. He gives the soprano a nice baritonal foil for some pretty duets. He introduces a time-dishonored pre-feminist conflict: should Harriet follow her heart and stay with Josiah, or her idealism and liberate the slaves?

He gets killed off conveniently, and with unintentionally comic leisure, in the end. In the process, he also weakens dramatic credibility, which is unfortunate, and sentimentalizes tragic potential, which is fatal.

"Harriet" is brand new and, without question, a noble effort. Unfortunately, it doesn't look or sound new. It looks and sounds like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with very good Muzak.

Putting on any new opera is difficult. Putting on a new opera with with regional forces, a tight budget and a limited rehearsal schedule must be very, very difficult. In Norfolk, the very, very difficult became a full-fledged nightmare when a last-minute crisis threatened to strike down the heroine.

Four days before the premiere, Cynthia Haymon, who portrays Harriet, fell and fractured her ankle during a rehearsal. Undaunted, she was back on the same raked stage within hours, on crutches, her leg in a cast.

Gordon Davidson reblocked some scenes to accommodate her immobility. Clive Thompson, the choreographer, brought in a dancer, Yvonne Erwin, to serve as Harriet's alter ego in key sequences. As the paradoxical fates would have it, the director had considered using a double for some episodes in the first place, but had abandoned the idea when it became apparent that Haymon was not just a remarkable singer but an accomplished actress and dancer as well.

"It was a shock," recalls Davidson. "Just when we most needed the impetus to go forward, we had to stop and redo. Where the characterization of Harriet had been bluntly physical, we had to find ways to sustain intensity while letting her just walk and talk. But this way works too. I don't think there is a sense of compromise."

Davidson--whose experience with opera had been limited to an "Otello" in Israel, a "Trovatore" in Houston and, assuming it counts as opera, Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" all over the place--regards "Harriet" as "a definite manifestation of the black experience, in some mysterious way."

"This," he reflects, "is a fascinating portrait of a heroic woman. This is a particular moment in black history as viewed by a remarkable Scottish Episcopalian lady. The blacks in the company respond to it in a visceral way. We seem to be dealing here in a profound racial memory."

Where Musgrave had originally intended to have a straightforward chronological narrative, Davidson persuaded her to adopt a more fluid concept of time and place. Where the composer had envisioned literal settings, Davidson and his designer, Jeffrey Beecroft, opted for symbols. Skeletal beams suggesting the ribs of a slave ship serve as a permanent scenic metaphor. The chorus, which calls Harriet to her sacred mission, remains onstage as an all-knowing, all-seeing force even when uninvolved.

The combination of realistic action and abstract ideas and symbolic maneuvers requires some jarring shifts in stylistic perception. The recourse to platitudes in moments of climactic exultation limits spiritual uplift. All hands are raised heavenward when the ensemble invokes universal freedom in the final tableau. The simplistic characterizations restrict expressive sympathy. The good are very good here, the bad very bad.

Davidson, who was still filling a yellow pad with critical notes after the second performance last Sunday, acknowledges some frustration.

"In the theater," he sighs, "the dress rehearsal is where the real work begins. In the opera house, the dress rehearsal is where the work ends."

The Norfolk production runs its ultimately bland course with suave professionalism and solid ensemble values. Peter Mark conducts an excellent 45-piece orchestra with sensitivity and vigor, as needed. The 22-voice chorus, recruited from local churches, sings as if lives were at stake.

Ben Holt brings a manly, impetuous demeanor and a powerful, mellifluous baritone to the one-dimensional duties of Josiah. Although her alter ego struts and poses in a slick, contradictory, modern-dancerly manner, Cynthia Haymon offers a tour de force as a tough yet radiant Harriet.

Most of the secondary roles are well cast, too. Barry Craft probably does what can be done with the nasty, declamatory music of the white villain, something of an anti- helden tenor. Jay Willoughby is properly benign as the massa too soon in the col', col' ground. A most promising mezzo-soprano named Alteouise DeVaughn exudes warmth and power as Harriet's stoic mother, and Raymond Bazemore personifies bluff sweetness as her victimized father.

Holt and Haymon, not incidentally, will soon make their British debuts at the Glyndebourne Festival in the roles of Porgy and Bess. The Met, too, might have benefitted from their services in these roles.

Simon Estes, who plays the crippled hero of Catfish Row at Lincoln Center, is fervent, sonorous, musically and dramatically impeccable yet, in the final analysis, curiously remote. Only part of the blame can be attributed to Nathaniel Merrill, the singularly unimaginative stage director.

Grace Bumbry, who plays the lyrical floozie with the heart of copper, is a well-padded prima donna masquerading as Bess. She floats very pretty pianissimos, flounces on the threshold of caricature and somehow manages to change from a yellow dress to a lavender one on the rowboat to Kittiwah Island.

The secondary singers, apart from Gregg Baker as a hulking, athletic Crown, tend toward the pallid. Still, this "Porgy" could have been salvaged with some theatrical savvy, some musical funk and some earthy irreverence. James Levine conducts it stiffly, concentrating on symphonic brilliance ueber Alles. He also restores every discredited hemidemisemiquaver in a four-hour marathon that repeatedly suffers from dutiful padding. Adding visual insult to sonic injury, Robert O'Hearn buries the work in lavish, dated, show-bizzy decoration.

The result is a pompous and bloated "Porgy," a "Porgy that is too clean, too refined and too well-sung for its own good. It is a "Porgy" without wit, without atmosphere and without pathos.

It also happens to be a "Porgy" minus one crucial word. The hero in this period piece can no longer call himself a "nigger." He's just a "beggar" now.

By a similarly delicate token, one can read nigger in the "Harriet" libretto, but one cannot hear this apparently most dangerous and most offensive of words in the Norfolk performance. Sanitization of the language takes precedence over historical realism in the enlightened 1980s.

This season, George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera, 50 years after its premiere. This month in Norfolk, the Virginia Opera offered the world premiere of Thea Musgrave's "Harriet, The Woman Called Moses," staged by Gordon Davidson of the Mark Taper Forum.

Both works reflect a white composer's perspective of the black experience. Gershwin created a sometimes jazzy, sometimes show-bizzy, sometimes unabashedly operatic portrait of poverty in the South Carolina of the 1930s. Musgrave, born in Scotland, has woven authentic period tunes, folk songs and spirituals into a neo-romantic portrait of Harriet Tubman, the Maryland slave who risked her life to become a "conductor" on the underground railroad just before the Civil War.

Historically and sociologically, both works are significant. Musically, neither is perfect. "Porgy" now suffers from something of an identity crisis. "Harriet" sometimes resembles "Uncle 1416588583

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