Like every other form of art, operas can be inspired by just about anything — historical events, myths, epic poems, plays, even movies. Often, such operas go on to eclipse their inspiration. Puccini’s “Tosca,” derived from a play by Victorien Sardou, is a good example; so is Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” based on a tragedy by Victor Hugo. But not all make that leap. Some remain in the shadow of their progenitors.
How that affects an opera’s appeal varies. But it’s a topic worth raising as several such works are soon to be featured on Southern California stages, beginning Saturday with a production at San Diego Opera of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” based on T.S. Eliot’s verse play. And Long Beach Opera, which already staged Philip Glass’ version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” this season, has two more adaptations coming up: the American premiere of Stewart Copeland’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” based on another Poe story, in May and Ernest Bloch’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in June.
Copeland, best known as the drummer in the rock band the Police, maintains that there’s an increasing trend toward recasting already familiar material.
“Funding is easier if you go with a known title, especially if it’s a smaller company that’s doing the commissioning,” he said recently from his home studio in Brentwood. “Opera is good at conveying emotions, but because singing makes the words harder to understand, opera is not real efficient — which is why it’s a real blessing for an opera composer if the audience already knows the mechanics of the story. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the perfect example. A new story is much more challenging.”
Yet there are drawbacks to reshaping the familiar. The operatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” by André Previn, a former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, has not fared particularly well since its premiere in 1998. Despite the championing of Renée Fleming, for whom it was written, the opera reached New York only this month — and just for a single, semi-staged performance — though that production is to have a five-date run in Chicago starting Tuesday.
“A known story is a loved story,” Copeland acknowledged. "[Mess] with it at your peril. Anything that’s really a great piece of literature, people have bonded with. Take ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ In fact, the filmmakers produced something way better than my childhood imagination could conceive of, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Great stories bring baggage.”
Ian Campbell, who has run San Diego Opera for nearly 30 years, doesn’t direct many productions himself, but he has taken charge of “Murder in the Cathedral,” an opera he’s long admired and one he calls “a great piece of theater.” Eliot’s reputation as a great poet notwithstanding, he contends that Pizzetti’s rendering, which had its premiere at Milan, Italy’s La Scala in 1958, holds its own against the drama that inspired it. Both depict the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, by knights of Henry II in 1170.
“The opera, in a way, is better than the play,” Campbell said by phone from his office. “The music colors the text, and music always makes words more important. But the material remains theatrical in this case. Those who know the play are not going to be at all disappointed.”
Pizzetti’s adaptation, which receives its West Coast premiere in San Diego, is remarkably faithful to Eliot’s original, though that’s not always the case when a work is transformed from the page to stage, especially when the material is sprawling or heavily episodic — such as Prokofiev’s brilliant but necessarily truncated take on “War and Peace” by Tolstoy.
“‘Murder in the Cathedral’ departs remarkably little from the play,” Campbell said. “It’s the same order of scenes exactly. It contracts some of the speeches or moves a line or two, but it does not really differ. It’s been brilliantly shaped. The chorus will be far more effective because the music is coloring their gloom and doom, which highlights the text as only opera can do. But if you’ve read the play, you’ve read the libretto.”
Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic and general director, seeks “an emotional connection” among the works he programs there each season.
“Stories that are well known can be a curse or an opportunity,” he said by phone from Chicago, where he is also general director of Chicago Opera Theater. “So I think it’s important to see if these stories really gain something by adding music to them. Many composers have tried their hand at Shakespeare, even Verdi, but not always successfully. The key is adding a different dimension with the music so that you deepen the emotional content and answer — or pose — more questions about these stories.”
Mitisek, in his 10th season at Long Beach, points to his company’s recent production of “The Fall of the House of Usher” to underscore his point. “The obsessiveness of the main character fits with the obsessiveness of Glass’s music, the constant repetition,” he said. “It makes you uncomfortable, which is why I liked the combination of Glass and that Poe story. Of course, it depends on the story and the piece. I have also seen some examples where I thought a work was a much better story or play than an opera.”
Douglas Cuomo seems to represent the future suggested by Copeland. Cuomo’s opera “Doubt,” which had its premiere in January but is not yet scheduled for the West Coast, is based on John Patrick Shanley’s play of the same name. Though the play won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize and was later turned into a movie starring Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the composer insists that its fame neither encouraged nor intimidated him.
“If I feel like it’s something I want to do, I don’t worry about that other stuff,” Cuomo said by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y. “I know that sounds naive or arrogant, but I don’t think it’s either. I’m dealing with the material, not with audience expectations. Also, I was working with John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the libretto. So if he’s game to do it, then I am, too.”
One thing Cuomo says he doesn’t worry about — just as his predecessors probably didn’t — is offending fans of the original material. “It’s not like a movie, which millions of people see,” he said. “Even a successful opera isn’t going out into the world in that same way. I think a lot about how audiences are going to react to the shape of my music. But as for how they’re going to like it, there’s not much I can do about that. There are plenty of things I’m concerned about, but that’s not one of them. Because once you’re in, all you’re concerned with is the doing.”