Art, Artifice and Morality

Ken Smith is an occasional contributor to Sunday Calendar

It's Friday afternoon, the end of a long week of rehearsals for "Hopper's Wife," and the cast and creators of the new opera are gathered in their TriBeCa rehearsal space, finally ready to tackle the lead character's big moment.

Having just run though his scene at the piano with music director Michael Barrett, baritone Chris Trakas--as a fictionalized version of painter Edward Hopper--moves center stage to begin.

"Think of the colors," composer Stewart Wallace coaches from the side, while librettist Michael Korie focuses silently on the proceedings.

"Can you remember the blocking?" asks director Christopher Alden.

"I think I can manage," Trakas says with a touch of sarcasm as he leans immobile against the back wall. Eyes closed, he eases into what may soon become the most infamous aria in modern opera: Hopper's graphic description of a porn film he has just seen, with gory details of miscegenation and body parts and fluids rendered in X-rated language that literally has something to offend everyone.

None of the creators involved in "Hopper's Wife" questions the merit of the scene--in which Hopper finds in the basest of raw material the inspiration for great art--just as none of them denies the controversy it could ignite when Long Beach Opera presents the world premiere on Saturday at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Long Beach.

"I'm really not a prude, but I just couldn't imagine singing these words," Trakas says of his initial reaction. "Clearly, they'll raise some eyebrows, but the role itself is so complex that this scene should just be absorbed in the flow."

Alden, who has already dealt with an explicit libretto in the 1990 premiere of Anthony Davis' "Tania," a nonliteral retelling of the Patty Hearst story, is a little more cautious. "There's something so potent about certain types of language that even in our liberated times you can't really underestimate [the reaction]."

All of those involved in the production agree that although its frank text and occasional nudity would fly by without much incident on the contemporary theatrical stage, the show's operatic context offers the potential for much greater impact.

"Giving a work a musical framework makes quite a difference," says Long Beach Opera's general director, Michael Milenski. "The musical can seem far more real. The nudity in a good production of 'Salome' seems more intense, even if she's really wearing a body suit. But our audience isn't innocent; we have a strong theatrical crossover, and their reaction is going to depend on how powerful the piece is musically. I mean, no one will complain if it's a great production."

The only thing that Wallace and Korie themselves seem sure of is how different this show is from "Harvey Milk," their operatic account of the life and death of the gay San Franciscocity supervisor and their highest-profile production to date.

"When we did 'Harvey Milk,' we all knew that some people would love it and some would hate it," says librettist Korie. "How will people react to 'Hopper'? I don't know. For the first time, I really don't know."

In chronological terms, "Hopper's Wife" should have had its test run long before "Harvey Milk" made it to the stage. The work is actually the third of Korie and Wallace's four collaborations, but in 1992, it was put aside in part because they received a commission for the Milk production.

That opera opened to mixed reviews at the Houston Grand Opera in 1995 and received a critical savaging at New York City Opera later that spring for its lack of musical focus and slipshod production values. A revised production opened at the San Francisco Opera last fall to much better reviews.

Although critics often lumped "Harvey Milk" into "CNN style"-operas like John Adams' history-based "Nixon in China," Wallace and Korie were aiming deeper. Mark Swed, writing of the San Francisco production in these pages, found that it "universalizes its subject by taking some big risks . . . mythologizing Milk as a symbol . . . for rising gay consciousness in America."

"In many ways, 'Harvey Milk' was our most conservative opera," Korie says. "It had an antagonist and a chorus and a broad operatic scope. 'Hopper's Wife' is a much more imaginative work, both in scale and focus. Instead of large, broad strokes, we did tiny, small ones."

" 'Hopper' is much closer to my own aesthetic than 'Harvey Milk,' " says director Alden. "It's more personal and abstract, with no political agenda. Sometimes during 'Harvey Milk,' it felt like I was directing Up With People. With 'Hopper's Wife,' what seemed hysterically funny and witty in the libretto became darkly emotional once the music was added. It digs into some dark territories, into relationships and the pain of the obsessed artist."

"Both shows create a world unto itself," says Korie, "which is what all our works share."

The first Wallace-Korie collaboration--"Where's Dick?" which Wallace describes as "a comic-book news fable" satirizing the Reagan years--was directed by Richard Foreman at the Houston Grand Opera in 1988. Their second, "Kabbalah," produced at New York's Dance Theater Workshop in 1989, drew its subject from mystical Judaism, its text culled from the original biblical sources.

When the two decided that their next collaboration would be a chamber-sized work with flesh-and-blood characters, Korie shared with Wallace a list of individuals he was interested in writing about. One was Josephine Hopper, wife of painter Edward Hopper and a painter herself. Having heard that she had burned a set of her husband's unexhibited drawings that she had modeled for, Korie imagined that her husband's cruelty had led her to the act. Also, further down Korie's list was the vituperative gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who had burned more than a few movie careers.

Both composer and librettist claim equal credit for linking the two figures. Wallace made a crack about "Edward Hopper and his wife, Hedda," but by then Korie says he was already onto the concept: Hopper's abuses would cause his wife to reinvent herself in Hollywood, where she would act just as abusively in her own arena. The transition would be enhanced visually through a series of hats, from specific hats Jo modeled in her husband's paintings to the increasing flamboyance of Hedda's trademark head wear.

Also linking the two would be a character based on Ava Gardner (played in the Long Beach production by mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), reinvented by Korie as a Hopper model who later becomes a movie star.

A former journalist, Korie began reading a lot of factual material about both Edward Hopper and Hollywood in that period--even talking to several artists who knew the painter personally. Then he put the facts away and began to write. Although Gail Levin's controversial 1995 Hopper biography agrees with many of Korie's initial impressions, the librettist is quick to claim that any deep connection between historical fact and his own prototypical characters is mostly coincidental.

"We started with an absurd premise and followed it to its logical conclusion," says Korie. "We took two American figures from opposite coasts and arrived at the essential conflicts between high and low art, husband and wife, and what an artist thinks about as opposed to what he or she paints. I think 'Hopper's Wife' is the substance of everything Stewart and I have done together."

"It's not a politically correct show in the least," admits Wallace. "It doesn't say, 'Oh, the poor victim who suffered under the tyranny of this man should be lionized.' No, she goes out and behaves equally badly, or worse. And Edward Hopper, the great man of American art, draws his great artistic inspiration--his sense of color and texture--from a porn film, patently reinventing it in his own mind."

It was this imagined scene that Korie claims cost them a production at Opera Memphis. "The euphemism was, 'You have to understand our audience,' " he says. "They said, 'We'd like to change these words, or consider taking this scene out,' and frankly, I wanted to see it [fully rehearsed] before I made that decision."

Opera Memphis general director Michael Ching remembers things differently. "It was more a question of available resources," he says. "When I'd heard who they'd wanted to direct and perform, I saw another zero coming into the budget."

Both sides now agree that the split was best.

"The show just didn't fit with the other works we've developed, which are more along the lines of pop music crossover," says Ching. "Issues of nudity and language would have become a problem if we'd gotten that far into production."

"We have on occasion been accused of being shocking," says Korie, with little trace of defensiveness. "I've never thought we were shocking. In fact, I think there's a very strong sense of morality running through our work, even if it's achieved in a way some people might consider amoral or even offensive."

"What is the real pornography here?" Wallace interjects. "These little films [that inspire] a great artist or Hedda's gossip-mongering and red-baiting?"

"Hopper's Wife" drives that point home in the climatic moment that inspired the opera in the first place. Mrs. Hopper burns the painter's nudes. She had been the model for the paintings in her previous incarnation, but now as Hedda, she preserves her own reputation as the tabloid arbiter of morality.

Although "Harvey Milk" demanded all their creative energy starting in 1992, Wallace and Korie never let "Hopper's Wife" fall completely from view. Even as "Harvey Milk" was making its way to the stage, they kept pushing their earlier work, managing to attract both "Harvey Milk" director Alden and soprano Juliana Gondek, who played Dianne Feinstein in "Harvey" and who now sings Mrs. Hopper.

As the campaign began to build, it started taking on the trappings of a crusade. Alden brought "Hopper's Wife" to the attention of the Long Beach Opera, where he has been a fixture for two decades; Michael Barrett, who had conducted a concert version and recording of "Kabbalah" in 1990, worked to set up a joint production with New York's 92nd Street Y, where he serves as director of the Tisch Center for Performing Arts.

Although the work is something of a departure for Long Beach, which has devoted most of its resources to radical reinterpretations of works from the past, Alden says that for him the fit seems comfortable.

Milenski agrees. "The reason we're doing this piece is because it deserves to be done," says Milenski. "It's a big investment--not so much money, but the energy you need to fight the fear of the unknown. But people are dying to hear new stuff--you can't tell me they're not--so if the show is new and good, where's the risk?"

Korie, however, seems well aware of the risk. Even in rehearsal for the Long Beach Opera's production, he had considered removing the scene--but only for artistic reasons. The run-throughs in New York, however, have only confirmed to Korie the importance of the scene in context.

"This year, I did a reading of the libretto at the National Arts Club," he says. "My own mother insisted that I take that scene out, which only convinced me to keep it in."

" 'Harvey Milk' has certainly changed people's reactions," he adds. "People are now more willing to accept what we're doing and are no longer breathing down our necks about language." Wallace and Korie also found that "Harvey Milk" changed their own reactions to their earlier work.

"I spent nearly seven months revising the 'Harvey Milk' score for San Francisco," says Wallace, "reexamining it note by note for clarity of rhythm, clarity of texture and ideas--and much of that attention to clarity shows up now in our revisions for 'Hopper's Wife.' "

"Michael left me a tall order," says Wallace. "I find it inspiring that [his] words are always fueled by very strong ideas. But he kept paring away the text so that it became all about subtext, everything has another meaning that has to be brought out in the music. There's an emotional shift in every line, and I had to find a way to keep the pace going and still let it happen."

"After 12 years of working together, we've found that the classical way of writing an opera--text first--is the best," says Korie. "It forces you first to think about things like musical and dramatic structure . . . then you let the music tell the story."

"No," counters Wallace, "the words tell the story. The music tells the truth."

*

* "Hopper's Wife," Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton Way. Saturday and next Sunday, 8 p.m.; June 18 and 19, 8 p.m.; June 21, 4 p.m.; June 22, 2 p.m. $27-$37. (310) 985-7000.

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