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Sunday, September 8, 2013

David Daniels' OSCAR: A REVIEW

Dear Readers:  I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music.  Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here.  Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century)!, and we share more than a few happy memories.  Today our author reviews the opera Oscar, starring his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers.  -- Edmund St.Austell


I an not a music reviewer.  I am a retired protestant clergyman.  I am someone who loves opera (as well as other forms of classical theater.) I am a person who has, over my 71 years, sung and acted in high school and college, and professionally and in summer stock and community theater.  I have happily performed in many a church basement and nursing home.  While watching old movies on Turner Classic Movies, I regularly see famous singers and actors I have performed with, but who, unfortunately, few people remember (which means I am not always believed.) These are biases of mine you should be aware of: I love opera and live theater and believe that any critical comments of any production ought to be grounded in humility and gratitude for those who care enough about art to take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to put something on stage.  This applies especially to new compositions.  I am impatient with anyone who thinks he or she knows enough to correctly predict the ultimate fate of long-term survival of any new work.  My own ultimate critical criteria when I attend the opera are that I stay awake, that I don't lose interest, that I trust I know it in my gut when something is "good" when I continue to be haunted by it.  I remain haunted by productions I have seen sixty years ago.  My final bias is that David Daniels has been a good, kind and generous friend of my wife Lois and me for fifteen years.  Star-struck?  You bet.  But that friendship has provided me with a window into the heart and soul of a person who is at once: pure artist, great performer, down to earth friend, gracious human being, and, importantly, an extraordinarily courageous advocate for gay rights, not only through what he says, but how he lives his life day to day.


Music: Theodore Morrison

Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison

World Premiere at Santa Fe Opera

July 27, 2013


Countertenor David Daniels is a down-to-earth and gracious man with a ready and often raucous sense of humor. And at heart, he is a dedicated artist and gay man. For David, who experienced his share of suffering growing up gay in the South, to appear as the first openly gay opera singer to portray the gay title character of a new opera, one written expressly for him, has been a powerful experience. My wife, Lois, and I were fortunate to see his performance in “Oscar” and spend some time with him one weekend in August.  In conversation, one can sense how intensely he feels about playing the character of Oscar Wilde. He puts it simply, “It has changed me.” I said to him, “This feels like you are a part of something that is more than this opera.” He answered, “You know what? About 20% of it is this opera.”




Oscar Wilde was the “superstar” of late Victorian London, and his fame was complex and precarious. In part it was due to polite society’s uneasiness about his sexual persona (he was married with two children). He was also the public face of the Aesthetic Movement. “The aesthetes’” message was that art has no other purpose than to uplift the human soul through beauty alone. Art for art’s sake. That message offended many Victorians who believed that art must be, above all, morally elevating. Nevertheless, such moralists found it impossible to take their eyes off the messenger – a sensational young wit in elegant velvet attire, foppish hair style, lace cuffs, knee-pants and buckled shoes, who was also a stunning conversationalist, brilliant literary critic and poet, and undoubtedly the greatest comic playwright England had seen in a hundred years. Wilde sat atop a fragile perch. Something was bound to happen. And  in 1895, while still basking in the extraordinary success of “The Importance of Being Ernest,” his tumble began. John Cox writes the following in the program notes for “Oscar.”


“The common perception of Oscar Wilde is as a great writer and notorious homosexual. We wish in our opera to accept this duality and modulate it into a perception of him as a tragic hero. The greatness required to qualify for such an upgrade is evident in his brilliant career. As playwright, novelist, poet, journalist, wit, and public personality, he was at least the equal of any contemporary. What we offer here is testimony, suitably inflected for the theater, of the events that turned his comedy to tragedy, plunging him into a purgatory of social humiliation and physical suffering through imprisonment with hard labor, thence to discard him as a spent husk. His resurgence from victim to hero came only posthumously.”


This is the frame the opera’s creators chose in order to make dramatic sense out of Wilde’s life, especially its final years. How did all this happen? Cox continues:

 “The gods always prescribe a nemesis to the protagonist in order to engineer his downfall. Oscar’s nemesis took the beautiful form of Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie Douglas was the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensbury, and they despised one another.  Oscar soon found himself in the cross fire of their enmity when Queensberry raised public objection to Oscar’s relationship with his son, imputing a sexual basis to it. Bosie forced Oscar to sue Queensberry for libel, hoping thereby to disgrace him, but Queensberry won the case, so that disgrace fell on Oscar. He was rapidly put on trial, convicted and jailed for ‘gross indecency.’”


The opening chords of the opera are filled with foreboding. The first to appear is Walt Whitman, powerfully sung by the exceptional baritone, Dwayne Croft. He serves as a traditional Greek chorus throughout the work. While some critics have regarded this device as irrelevant and distracting, for me personally, it worked very well. I love Walt Whitman’s poetry, and following his spoken introduction of the story, I began to notice that what Whitman sang comes directly from “Leaves of Grass.”  Both men were great artists whose lives had many parallels, including a veiled sexual life that their respective publics suspected with great ambivalence. In fact, Wilde had visited Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, during Oscar’s famous lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada in 1882. Wilde, a much younger man, esteemed Whitman highly. As a child his mother had read to him from “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman offered Wilde some elderberry wine, and throughout the visit Wilde addressed him with great respect. At one point Wilde declared that he couldn’t bear “to listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme.” “Why, Oscar,” said Whitman, “it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.” Wilde, taken aback, replied, “Yes. I think so too.” After his meeting with Whitman, Wilde said, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.” For me, the use of Whitman as a commentator on Wilde, as fellow artist, but as critic of “abstraction” makes sense. The arc of the drama of Wilde’s life in “Oscar” reveals his terrible journey from abstract aestheticism to palpable suffering – first through his perilous relationship with Bosie, and then from the pain he underwent in prison.


Following the prologue, Act I takes place on the eve of his second trial. Out on bail, Wilde attempts to find a hotel room for the night. But Queensbury has bribed some detectives to harass Wilde, hounding him with brutal anti-gay slurs, and tipping off the night clerks in each hotel that this is Oscar Wilde, the man charged with “gross indecency.” Repeatedly turned away, as he wanders helplessly, the image of Bosie appears to him. Bosie is portrayed by the remarkable dancer Reed Lupau. He is graceful and slight as was the real Bosie. He has no spoken or sung lines and appears frequently throughout the opera, sometimes as himself, sometimes masked as other characters. At Oscar’s insistence Bosie has already fled to France. Bosie never appears in the opera except as a wraith in Oscar’s imagination, a kind of obsession, morphing into a variety of forms, some comforting, some demonic. Though the use of a dancing mute is borrowed from Britten’s “Death in Venice,” I still found it very effective. Wilde maintained that Bosie was “the love of his life” - a love that was tender, obsessive and very dangerous.


Wilde at last finds refuge in the home of his old friend Ada Leverson, a writer and mother. The only room she has for him is the nursery, overflowing with toys, rocking horses, stuffed animals, and children’s books. Soprano Heidi Stober was new to me.  Her voice took flight with genuine compassion for Oscar. Their conversation is punctuated by wit and sharp observations, but we instantly know that Wilde is beset by dread and weariness. To calm him, she asks Oscar to read aloud from one of his children’s books.


Theodore Morrison’s score is tonal and romantic, avoiding harsh dissonance, but is still replete with surprising turns. For me, the music worked well. This is not a score that is ground-breaking, but it serves the drama very effectively, as words and music nicely embrace. Lois said it felt in places like a “sung play.” The only two arias in the opera belong to Daniels, and the first is in this scene. Oscar sings a brief song in praise of absinthe. Wilde downs several glasses of it (at least the substance looked green to me).  Ada leaves briefly, and Bosie re-appears to Oscar. They join in a gentle dance and embrace. This leads to the beautiful aria “My sweet rose,” overflowing with yearning. The tri-tonal nature of the refrain (using the so-called “devil’s interval”) is uncanny, yet genuinely moving. Daniels sings with a legato of sheer beauty with none of the vibrato-less “eeriness” that was once so widely expected of countertenors. No recorded music from “Oscar” is readily available. Here, however, is Daniels singing with similar feeling, but in a very different style. This is ”Ch’io parta?” (“Must I leave?”) from Partenope by Handel.  It captures heart break not unlike what Oscar feels. This aria is a personal favorite from the first opera I saw Daniels in.




Into the scene then enters another of Oscar’s friends, the writer Frank Harris. Tenor William Burden, another rising star with Santa Fe experience, sings beautifully and dramatically.  Unlike Ada, he is a friend whose dominant personality has often clashed th Wilde’s ego. Word of Harris’ arrival sends Wilde into retreat from the nursery to gather himself for the encounter, with some very funny lines about what it is like to be around Frank. But when he
 returns Frank and Ada try desperately to convince Oscar to flee England at once. Harris says he has readied a yacht to take him away. They argue that he owes it to himself and to his wife and children to find safety. Their soaring duet expresses the special love they share for Oscar and the ardent desire to protect him from the cruelty that is bound to engulf him. When he seems at first to agree, Ada and Frank depart and we witness Oscar’s genuine struggle to decide. I have seen David Daniels on stage many times over the
 years, but this is his finest acting. Bosie returns and we begin to see the depth of Oscar’s anguish. Now he makes the “moral” decision to be true to who he really is. He will stay and defend himself, and he will accept the consequences. Gone now are his off-hand dismissals of what prison might be like. He has begun to realize the truth of what is happening to him.




The next selection is “Welcome Wanderer” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. Britten is said to be a big musical influence on Theodore Morrison. Here Daniels plays Oberon. Puck is silent, though he speaks elsewhere in the opera. This music is much closer in style to “Oscar” than my other selections. And though Oberon and Puck are not Oscar and Bosie, this shows an interaction between a singer and a mute actor suggestive of the one in “Oscar.”


 Act I ends with a wild and bizarre depiction of the trial itself. Instead of the familiar tense “courtroom drama,” the nursery is transformed into a crazed menagerie of prancing hobby horses, dancing Raggedy Ann dolls, stuffed animals, and wooden soldiers - all toys gone bad - evoking a travesty, presided over by a judge who is a bouncing jack-in-the box. (played by the remarkable young bass Kevin Burdette). This scene has been criticized as over the top. And it is, but I found it amazing theatre. The phrase “mockery of justice” rolls off the tongue today so easily that it has lost the sense of outrage it actually implies. But here it is recovered. As the guilty verdict is rendered, the music swells, and Oscar Wilde, the accused in the dock (which has been a baby’s crib) finds himself condemned as the slats of the crib are transformed into slowly rising bars. And the music swells to the strains of “Hail Britannia!”




Act II takes place in Reading Gaol. For many today, Wilde’s two-year imprisonment is a footnote to his life. But the opera reminds us that Victorian prisons were no minimum security spas for the rich and famous. They were brutal, degrading, and fully dedicated to the destruction of body and spirit. This mission is proudly announced by Colonel Isaacson, the governor (warden), upon Wilde’s arrival. Kevin Burdette returns to play him as malevolence incarnate. Wilde appears shackled and still attired in his red velvet smoking jacket. Gone now is any trace of wit or irony. He stands in dazed silence as what awaits him is read aloud:  No speaking to another prisoner at any time, hard labor, no pen and paper of any kind, no reading material. With piteous humility, Oscar asks “May I not have some book to bring solace to my soul?” This is briskly denied by Governor Isaacson, who informs Oscar that he has no soul, and reminds him that the purpose of his stay in Reading Gaol is to be reduced to nothing. Then, piece by piece, his clothing is discarded and he dons his gray prison suit. Escorted to his cell, a cage, he is introduced to the machine upon which his hard labor is to be performed. It is a fiendish metal device with a crank attached. Each time the prisoner turns this crank, one revolution is registered and retained for an endless record.


Wilde is required to attend a church service. Standing in line with the other prisoners, he collapses, is made to stand again, and again falls to the ground. His head now injured, the governor finally orders him to the infirmary. There takes place what, for me, is the most moving scene of the opera. He shares this brief respite from the horrors of the prison with two other inmates, all three barely able to move from their beds. One of them has heard of Oscar. Respectfully he asks Wilde what he thinks of Dickens. Oscar is tempted to summon his mocking wit, but at once realizes how humble the man is. Though all have been living in hell, Oscar is now able to newly connect with another broken human being. He is learning from their suffering and from his own. A moment that still brings tears to my eyes is when Wilde has difficulty getting comfortable enough to sleep and his new friend leaves his own bunk, goes to Wilde’s bedside, unfolds his blanket, and gently tucks him in. Oscar would later write, “There is no prison in any world into which love cannot force an entrance.”


Before leaving the infirmary, Oscar learns that a prisoner is to be hanged, a man who murdered his wife by cutting her throat. As the time approaches, tension among the inmates rises to a frenzy. Bosie, masked as Death itself, swirls through the prison like a whirlwind, his dancing spectacular in its choreography. The prisoners sing a poignant and haunting chorus, with lyrics taken directly from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Here Morrison’s mastery of choral composition is truly impressive. The hanging is enacted in a brutally explicit and ghastly way. It is riveting. The masked executioner is revealed to be Bosie.




Eventually the sadistic Isaacson is replaced. Wilde, now nearing the end of his two-years, is allowed pen and paper and books. His last visit is from Ada. In a letter to her, he had expressed his desire, on release, to be received into a Christian monastery. She sadly informs him that the request has been denied. Wilde is resigned and she is sorrowful as they part. (For three years after his release, Wilde wandered in exile in France seeking spiritual redemption; broken in health, penniless, never to see his wife and children again. Oscar Wilde died in a shabby Paris hotel room. His oft quoted famous last words are likely apocryphal, a variation on an earlier observation to friends: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”)


The opera, itself, ends in a startling way. Walt Whitman, long dead, appears again. From his vantage point in heaven, he welcomes Oscar Wilde into a firmament that is home to the souls of the great, good and wise ones of human history. The music soars and is wonderfully triumphant. It is, well, quite operatic! And the opera’s final words belong to Oscar. Amazed and surrounded by those who have just welcomed him into glory, he turns to face us and sings: “For myself the only immortality I desire is to invent a new sauce.” This, it seems to me, is a perfect ending. It is as if to say, “La tragedia è finita.”


This final selection is “Barbaro Traidor” from a recording session for the opera Bajazet, by Antonio Vivaldi. Here is Daniels with Fabio Biondi conducting Europa Galante. Imagine it as Oscar Wilde having fun in heaven with some wonderful friends. Please skip the ad, since no such thing can exist in heaven. 









JD Hobbes said...

What an interesting article. Even though I visited Wilde's grave in Paris, I was unaware of most of this material.

Thanks to Jing for a most informative piece and, of course, the Vivaldi at the end of it.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes! Always a pleasure to hear from you. Yes, I too found this a most interesting and informative article, and it increased my appreciation of Daniels' strength and determination in undertaking a role that some might view as controversial. Again, my appreciation for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Well done, Jing! Chapeau, Mr. Daniels! Gratitude to Morrison & Cox for this work of art; and, of course, obeisance to the great and noble Mr. Wilde, a true giant of the mind and heart, who courageously paved the way for all of us who follow. He once wrote: "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Mr Wilde, your star still shines brightly, today perhaps more than ever.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for wonderful, and most elegant comment! Always appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Thank you again, Edmund, for getting another wonderful writer. It is amazing to me how you manage to get writers with personal acquaintance with the artists! It makes such a difference! It provides insights that just aren't available elsewhere. Great article, thnk you JING and Edmund!


Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank you my friend, as always, for your enthusiastic and supportive comments!

JING said...

Thank you each for your responses. Mr. Hobbes, I have not made that visit to Oscar Wilde’s grave, but I would like to very much. I find Wilde endlessly fascinating and complex. And surprising in the depth of both his genius and his humanity. Edmund, I appreciate what you write about Daniels’ strength and determination in taking on this role. He possesses huge courage and integrity as an artist, and has shown this again and again throughout his career. Anonymous, thank-you for saying what you did about Wilde himself. He truly is “a giant of the mind and heart.” I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read it, to look at “De Profundis”. I find myself moved by the honesty with which he probes his relationship with Bosie, looks into his own heart, and astonished by what he says about love, hate, imagination and art. This man was simply a great, great writer and artist, and a truly humane man. And, Martha, I gratefully echo your gratitude to Edmund. He really is a most gracious host to all of us – welcoming and encouraging and affirming.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my dear friend; most kind of you, and please permit me at this point to thank you for the beautiful and informative piece you have written. You always did write well, and you still do! Better than ever:-) You've done a real service, both to Daniels and to this fascinating opera! I'm sure all join me in saying THANK YOU!

Anonymous said...

This is very well done! You may not be a crtic, JING, but maybe you ought to be! This is most interesting and I feel like I really know something about the opera now. Also I love the pics! Bravo.

Chester Wells

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much Mr. Wells, and welcome to Great Opera Singers. Hope we'll see you again! You're always welcome here, do drop by and comment. And I agree with you, incidentally, our writer would make a darned fine critic!

JING said...

Thank you, Mr. Wells, for your very kind words. They are so appreciated. "Oscar" will next be performed by Opera Philadelphia in February of 2015. I would urge everyone who is interested to see it. David Daniels will again appear as Oscar Wilde, and I believe the production and cast will be the same as it was in Santa Fe. If this opera succeeds over time, it would surely appeal to countertenors in the future.

Anonymous said...

In addition to being precise and detailed, and just plain full of good information, this review is sensitive and kind. A real joy to read. Whoever you are, JING, you deserve congratulations for this beautiful review. I wish all critics were as kind and intelligent as you!

Jason M

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Jason! That is a very nice comment indeed, and I'm sure our author will be touched by it!

JING said...

Your comments, Jason, are kind and affirming. I am very encouraged by what you have written. Thank you!

V. Kemper said...

When it comes to opera, I could hardly be more ignorant. But as a lover of music and art and a believer in the redemptive power of art that is offered by a gifted and willingly vulnerable artist, I am deeply moved by this account of Mr. Daniels' portrayal of another brilliant and tragically vulnerable artist. Jing has done of superb job of explaining the background, significance and quality of this operatic production. His review only leaves me wishing I could experience it.

JING said...

For V. Kemper - Your comment is so much appreciated! What you say about the redemptive value of art and the vulnerability of the artist are exactly the points I was attempting to make, and you expressed it all so beautifully (and succinctly). I am especially pleased that you might wish to see "Oscar" one day as well we hear David Daniels sing, whenever those opportunities arise. What I was attempting to do with this "review" was to provide a fuller context for both the opera itself as well as David's relationship to the work as artist and human being. Most professional reviewers simply don't have the time and space to do this. But your kind words make the effort seem so worthwhile to me. Regarding your feelings about opera, I have concluded that it is very possible for some people to love music of all kinds, but not opera. And for those who don't like opera, I realize it is futile to try and make the case if a mind is made up. And, honestly, the strangeness of opera should not surprise anyone. I discovered a few days ago something said by Samuel Johnson, where he described opera as "An exotic and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated, and always has prevailed." That said, I am so grateful that your comments reflect such an open mind and open heart.

Anonymous said...

As one of the group of friends of both you and David who saw the opera together in Santa Fe, I found your review insightful and based on a breadth and depth of knowledge of poetry and music that I, unfortunately, do not share. I can see I missed a lot during the performance and am grateful for your thoughtful analysis. My experience of, and new-found appreciation for, opera is entirely a result of my friendship with David, and the privilege of hearing him and his fellow artists sing Handel has been transformative.

While I have great respect for David’s acting ability, and agree with you that his acting in Oscar is some of the best I’ve seen from him, for me, it was the acting, not the music, that carried the evening. Let me hasten to add that I’m distinguishing the music from the singing!

What I took away from our common experience in seeing Oscar together, hearing the pre-performance talk and talking with David about it is the passion and conviction the artists involved brought to the project. A few scenes, such as the one in the prison hospital, stand out in showing how the experience changes Oscar and how he responds as a “real person” as opposed to responding automatically with his public persona as a ‘wit.’

Not only does this period in the life of Oscar Wilde transcend cultural time and place, it informs, as David himself has so eloquently described, this period in American – and, indeed, international -- culture as societies and religious traditions wrestle with what it means to embrace the universal humanity of love in all its forms. So, the story is definitely opera material, but I was disappointed in what I experienced as a lack of universal appeal – precisely because it is a story that needs to be told.

Perhaps it is old-fashioned of me (reference our airport conversation!), but I feel live theatre ought to reach individuals in the audience in a variety of ways, not just appeal to those who arrive primed through their education and experience to find the subtleties in the music and the libretto that, absent the actors’ ability to portray character development, go right over the heads of a significant portion of the audience. In that regard, you really zinged the professional critics, and bravo to you for that! I feel I gained a different and valuable perspective but still wonder whether, in the hands of a lesser actor (and I use that work intentionally) than David, the true power of this experience in Oscar’s life would be conveyed to a majority of the audience coming to hear and see it as opera.


JING said...

J-Dub, how good of you to send your comments! It seems to me very useful for readers of Great Opera Singers to hear from someone else who attended the same performance of “Oscar.” You are too modest in referring to your knowledge of music and poetry, because, in fact, you have a deep knowledge and appreciation of both, especially baroque opera. And, it was you, after all, who organized our little band of admirers to travel to Santa Fe to see David Daniels. So you speak with a special kind of authenticity.

I am glad that you mentioned the pre-performance talk. This was a dinner gathering in which the composer, Theodore Morrison (who also co-wrote the libretto), spoke at some length about the eight-year journey that led to the production of “Oscar.” He spoke quite eloquently about the great spirit of commitment that had grown among himself, John Cox, and David Daniels. And we certainly experienced that first-hand in the moments we had after the performance to congratulate and chat with the cast.

You are absolutely right about the scene in the prison hospital. It convincingly portrayed the transformation Wilde underwent while in prison. He would write that it was there that he discovered true humility.

I appreciate it that you state so clearly the theme of “Oscar” – that is, the struggle “to embrace the universal humanity of love in all its forms.” This is certainly what inspired its creators and cast, a universal theme that embraces, but goes beyond gay rights and liberation. As you say, “a story that needs to be told” and certainly worthy of opera.

I find much to ponder in what you write, especially about the goal of live theatre to reach a true cross-section of those in the audience, ranging from experts and specialists, to the average theatre-goer and music lover – really anyone who is open and curious. I believe that the great dramatists and great opera composers (all great artists) strive to do this: that is, to embrace universal themes in a way that touches the hearts of everyone. I guess, for myself, just how well “Oscar” meets that test, only time will tell. But what a noble effort!