"Hopper's Wife"--the new opera by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie in which the wife of painter Edward Hopper is colorfully transmogrified into gossip columnist Hedda Hopper--is not for everyone. That can't be stated too strongly.
Long Beach Opera, which commissioned the work along with the 92nd Street Y in New York, warns its patrons that the production contains nudity, pornography, tobacco smoke, fog and gunshots. If that's a problem, stay away. If you hold Hollywood and its early icons--its Charlie Chaplins, Clark Gables, Ava Gardners--in high moral esteem, stay away. If it will spoil your appreciation of the powerful stillness and affectless emotion in Edward Hopper's paintings to consider their creator a violent, drunken, vulgar, suicidal misogynist, you probably don't need this.
But if you are not easily offended and want a notion of one possible direction for American opera into the next millennium, then Knoebel Dance Theater at Cal State Long Beach, where "Hopper's Wife" had its world premiere Saturday night and continues for another week, needs to be your destination.
"Hopper's Wife" is not a particularly likable opera and certainly not nice, but it is brave, bold and important. It dares to stand apart from the current trend in American opera for realist historical drama. It doesn't follow the vein of "Harvey Milk," the previous opera by Wallace and Korie in which they attempt to capture the glitter and horror of a historical moment. Nor is it quite like their earlier work, the outrageous farce "Where's Dick?," or the mystical "Kabbalah."
Instead, this 90-minute chamber opera radically re-imagines history. Ava, a sultry Southern model, poses for Hopper at his retreat in Cape Cod and enters into competition with the painter's long suffering wife, who had been Hopper's only model and whose own art career was sacrificed for her thankless husband.
Both women tire of Hopper's abusiveness and flee to Hollywood, where Mrs. Hopper's vengeance finds voice as the vituperative columnist and Ava becomes a famous star but also pathetic victim of movieland sleaze. Debauched by pornography and booze, Hopper ultimately walks into the ocean, and Mrs. Hopper returns to burn the nudes. Torch in hand and looking like the logo of Columbia Pictures, she becomes the personification of low art destroying the high.
Despite such transparent symbolism, "Hopper's Wife" is an arresting attempt at the level of music, poetry and theater to grapple with one of the most meaningful issues in art today, namely how, in a postmodern age dominated by popular culture, can high art remain meaningful. Hopper is torn apart by the conflict of his own dark lust with his need for pure art; Ava is a victim of commercialized art; Mrs. Hopper is art's destroyer in the name of virtue.
Music and text mix the vulgar and exalted with mixed success here. Wallace's score gives each character a different style, but the torchy '40s songs, the movie music of the time, and the Copland-esque art music all seemed touched by the same moodiness, thick in unresolved harmonies and seething with an undercurrent of violence. Korie offers exciting images and horribly crude ones side by side; clever rhythms and rhymes intentionally confuse smut with art.
This is no easy opera to stage or perform, and it is presented with considerable care. Christopher Alden's sophisticated production hides nothing, but exploits nothing. It is staged on a remarkable set by Allen Moyer, in which a Hopper watercolor--"The House on Pamet River" seems the closest--is both an angular backdrop and the stage floor. The lighting by Heather Carson is done with an equally remarkable eye for capturing the light in Hopper's paintings.
The singers have their work cut out for them. The soprano, Lucy Schaufer, sings most of the first quarter of the opera nude, and it is hardly surprising, especially on the first night, that she best found her voice, clear and firm, and best maintained Ava's dignity with clothes on.
Chris Pedro Trakas has the responsibility to deliver one of the hardest arias in all of opera--hard not because of the notes but the words, which describe a particularly smutty film. The aria is the turning point of the opera, and the baritone handled with sensitivity, Hopper's angst compellingly overpowering eroticism.
Mezzo-soprano Juliana Gondek has her own trials, being physically thrown about the stage, yet she manages the outrageous transformation from artist to anti-artist gossip-monger with great flair, although I would have liked to understand more words. Michael Barrett is the sympathetic and rock-solid conductor.
With 'Hopper's Wife,' Long Beach Opera has itself bravely and boldly reinvented itself, the opera kicking off the company's move to Cal State Long Beach and assuming a festival format. One thing that included was a delicious reading by the performance artist Rachel Rosenthal of Hedda Hopper columns, and she made it her own extraordinary one-woman opera.
* "Hopper's Wife" repeats Wednesday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Knoebel Theater, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach; $27 and $37, (310) 985-7000.