San Jose gets an opera premiere today, or half of one, at least. Enterprising Opera San Jose is celebrating its fifth season with “West of Washington Square,” commissioned from Alva Henderson.
The new opera, running through Dec. 4, is actually a pair of one-acts, based on O. Henry’s stories “The Last Leaf” and “The Third Ingredient.” Two separate tales of love and forgiveness, they are integrated in sharing the same boardinghouse locale, with the landlady a common character. There are also some musical thematic links.
“The Last Leaf,” however, began life 10 years ago, and was given its premiere by the San Jose State University Opera Theater in June, 1979, at the Montalvo Center for the Arts in Saratoga.
“It’s been a real knock-down, drag-out 10 years,” Henderson says ruefully. His labor of the decade, however, has not been “West of Washington Square,” but rather his three-act “Achilles,” setting a libretto by Richard Freis based on Homer.
“Completing ‘Achilles’ is the No. 1 priority,” Henderson says. “I feel I’ve done something wonderful. There’ll be a time when people will not believe that I had trouble getting it put on.”
Such grand, large-scale endeavors seem characteristic of Henderson. His first opera was a “Medea,” staged by San Diego Opera in 1972. He followed that with a “Tempest,” on his own adaptation of the Shakespeare play, and “The Last of the Mohicans,” commissioned by the Wilmington Opera Society for the bicentennial in 1976.
Poet/novelist Janet Lewis, with whom Henderson shares a house in Los Altos Hills, provided the libretto for “The Last of the Mohicans.” She has helped the composer clean up his “Last Leaf” libretto, and wrote the libretto for “The Third Ingredient,” called “The Room Across the Hall” in the opera.
In comparison to settings of epic myth, Shakespeare and Cooper, O. Henry-based one-acts seem start-lingly introspective. Though Henderson feels that the small size of Montgomery Theater “is wonderful for these works,” he is reluctant to refer to them as chamber opera.
“That’s the C word,” he laughs. “To me, it suggests a certain prissiness, and these are very full-bodied works.”
Opera San Jose seems to be giving “West of Washington Square” a full-bodied production. The $282,000 budget includes the company’s most expensive set ever, a rotating 1910-era Greenwich Village brownstone boardinghouse designed by Ken Holamon.
Irene Dalis, artistic director of Opera San Jose, is an important booster of Henderson’s work. She has known his operas from the beginning, singing the title role in the first performance of Henderson’s “Medea.”
Though the composer laments, “I’m afraid I’m not that good a promoter of my works,” it was indefatigable self-promotion of “Medea” that landed it in San Diego. At the time, Henderson’s loftiest achievement in opera was holding a position in the San Francisco Opera chorus.
Now 48, Henderson came late to formal music studies, switching from drama to music as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University.
“I sneaked myself into the music department by forging my adviser’s signature,” Henderson confesses. “I didn’t think I could pass the competency tests.
“I think you are a composer or you aren’t, and if you are, you can use the (academic) training. But you can’t create a composer. If you don’t generate musical ideas within yourself, it just won’t work. The greatest training I got was my four years in the San Francisco Opera chorus.”
Now, Henderson has little doubt about his calling, and does little else but compose. He relies on intermittent commissions, and private support. A group of San Francisco businessmen have backed the “Achilles” project with annual contributions.
“I just write,” Henderson states baldly. “You have to be willing to live simply, without a lot of things. I don’t travel much.”
Musically, he says, “I trust my talent more now. Earlier, if it (music) flowed out easily, I mistrusted it.”
A romantic and a lyricist seemingly after his time, Henderson is a bit bemused by the recent vogue for a vaguely defined New Romanticism, and the success of minimalists like Philip Glass in the theater. He is not overly concerned, however, about the vagaries of style trends, or attempting to mold a piece for audience appeal.
“There isn’t a whole lot of choice, when you get down to it,” Henderson says. “My major concern has to be to write the greatest piece possible from my personal vision. If you start trying to figure out what people want to hear, you’ll end up writing movie music--and that ain’t art.”