Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The "Dolores Claiborne" opera (2013): reviewing the reviews

As you may know, I am a Stephen King fan.
  
This surprises you?  Feign surprise all you want, but it is merest truth.  The truth inside the lie, one might say.
  
Or one might not say such a lame thing as that, but evidently that was how my brain wanted to begin this post.  Fuck it, let's regroup.
  
Point is, AS a Stephen King fan, I'm kind of used to being able to indulge my fandom.  King puts out a new book or story, I buy it and read it.  A new movie comes out?  I go see it.  A new television series comes on?  I watch it.  A new comic book comes out?  I get one.
  
Generally speaking, I am able to keep up with all but the most ephemeral such bits of King-dom.  And that suits me just fine.
  
But every once in a while, something comes along that scoots right past my defenses and escapes from me.  One such instance came in 2013, when the San Francisco Opera staged Dolores Claiborne, an opera by composer Tobias Picker based on the novel (and movie) of the same name(s).
  
  
Dolora Zajick as Dolores Claiborne, a performance that would never be


I'd happily have attended a performance if I could have done so, but it was not vaguely feasible.
  
To date, there has been no commercial video or audio release of any kind.  No bootlegs exist that I am aware of; no performances (apart from a highlight reel, more on which in a bit) exist on YouTube.  For all practical purposes, the opera just plain doesn't exist for this King fan and blogger.
  
And this vexes me.  Yes, it vexes me mightily.
  
That said, I thought it made sense to go ahead and pound out a post on the subject while I was in Dolores Claiborne mode (having recently covered both the novel and the movie).  I can't review what I can't see/hear, but I can compile all the interesting information about it I can find, and if nothing else serve as a sort of repository for information about the opera.
  
If you're game, follow along, and let's see if we turn up anything interesting. 
 
I'm going to approach this by going one by one through various documents -- news articles and reviews, mostly -- that I've archived over the years on the subject.  I do this; I keep archives of all sorts of King-related articles, and every time a new one gets in front of my eyes, I add to the collection.  My folder on this opera contains twenty-plus items, so let's just go through them one by one, howsabout?
  
The first one is dated August 17, 2013, and is an article by Edward Ortiz that appeared in the Sacramento Bee.  Titled "San Francisco Opera brings Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne to stage," it appeared here but is no longer online.
  
In the interest of preserving the text, I'm going to copy and paste it here in its entirety (with some formatting alterations made to suit my own sensibilities, such as the addition of italicizations):

Among living authors, few offer as large a body of work as promising for adapting to opera as Stephen King, whose characters are well established in the public consciousness and embody a wide emotional scope.
 
This observation was realized years ago by composer Tobias Picker, who has earned a reputation for writing bracing operas with strong female roles.  Adapting a King work for the operatic stage had been a simmering, decadelong desire for Picker, 59, an avowed fan of the best-selling writer.
 
When Picker finished his opera An American Tragedy, for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2005, he decided the time was right to seriously start thinking about how to adapt King’s 1992 psychological thriller Dolores Claiborne to the grand opera stage.
 
He went looking for an opera company.  His first stop was the San Francisco Opera, run by general director David Gockley, a friend of Picker’s from when he was composer-in-residence at the Houston Symphony and Gockley was the general director of the Houston Grand Opera.
 
“He and I had been talking about doing an opera together for a long time,” Picker said.
 
Gockley, a maverick commissioner of operas, loved the idea.  It seemed like a perfect fit given the long list of commissions Gockley has overseen, including the 9/11 opera Heart of a Soldier, last year’s provocative adaptation of Melville’s Moby Dick and his most famous commission: John Adams’ Nixon in China.
 
Picker’s Dolores Claiborne gets its world premiere Sept. 18 at the War Memorial Opera House, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy.  The cast features noted mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick in the title role and soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera.  George Manahan conducts the James Robinson production.
 
Picker, who is known for the highly regarded operas Emmeline and An American Tragedy, was introduced to Dolores Claiborne through the underrated 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and directed by Taylor Hackford.  The film adaptation stayed close to King’s novel, which is written like a continuous monologue by its title character.
 
“When I first saw the movie I wasn’t so sure it could be an opera, but when I read the book I realized it could,” he said.  “It had all the bones.”
 
The novel tells the tale of Claiborne, who seeks to clear her name amid allegations that she killed her wealthy employer.  In doing so, she confesses to the murder of her husband, which happened 30 years prior.
 
The 1992 book proved a hit with the public and became the biggest seller in the United States that year.  For King it remains one of his few books in which the supernatural is not a driving factor.  Nonetheless, it is still classic King fare — with characters confronting formidable pressures against the seemingly quaint and benign backdrop of a small New England town.
 
“I’m very drawn to strong, clearly defined characters who have intense and emotional inner lives and problems,” Picker said.
 
And if those characters are women, all the better.  Picker has a talent for writing music for tragic female characters on harsh journeys.  The title character of his 1996 opera Emmeline, adapted from a book by Judith Rossner, shares a similar fraught story arc with Claiborne. Both must transcend adversity by defying the claustrophobic societal expectations imposed on women, Picker said.
 
In Emmeline the title character gives birth to an illegitimate son who is soon taken away to be raised by others.  Two decades later, she unknowingly marries him.  After that secret is revealed, Emmeline is abandoned by her son/husband and ostracized in her town until her death.
 
Unlike Emmeline, the title character in Dolores Claiborne recounts, with a vivid potty mouth, a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and the dawning of powerful womanhood.  It’s a role that demands a powerful presence on the screen and on the opera stage.  As regards the film, Bates imbued the role with an outsized presence.  She has said that Dolores Claiborne was one of her greatest roles.
 
In selecting Zajick for the title role, the production will see a talented soprano — and one who has made a mark with the Verdi repertoire.  She is closely linked with the San Francisco Opera stemming from a stunning debut she made with the company as Azucena in 2003’s Il Trovatore and with her standout performance as Joan of Arc in the company’s 2006 production of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans.
 
The almost larger-than-life aspect of Claiborne proved a welcome challenge to librettist McClatchy, who had previously worked with Picker on Emmeline.  McClatchy said he embraced the job of adapting a work well known in the pop-culture consciousness.
 
“With a Stephen King novel you find a person in extreme situations — and I was drawn to the psychology of that, of how we cope, how we feel,” McClatchy said.  “The realism of the book was very attractive to me.”
 
In crafting the libretto, he stayed close to the book and eschewed any close reading of the film adaptation.
 
McClatchy, a well-known poet who teaches at Yale and has written several librettos, said he first went through the text to get a sense of the characters.
 
As a librettist, McClatchy said his primary job is to stay out of the way of the composer.  It was a lesson he learned the hard way upon taking his first libretto job in 1998: A Question of Taste for composer William Schuman.  When he handed in his first draft, Schumann rejected it.  In retrospect, McClatchy sees that first draft as having done everything but getting out of the way of Schuman.
 
“It was a very good lesson,” he said.  “My job in writing a libretto is to make the composer want to write music.  That is very different from, say, writing a play version of a novel.”
 
The novel presented McClatchy certain hurdles, including having Claiborne alternate between singing as a young and old woman in the same act.
 
“It’s a plot that keeps doubling back — from 1940 to 1992.  There are time changes, which is a challenge.”
 
And as is the case with many King novels, a sense of place is a big factor in the story.  Claiborne is set in the windswept fictional island town of Little Tall Island — the same island used as the setting for King’s 1999 Storm of the Century, a miniseries he wrote specifically for television.
 
“This is, for the most part, a raw landscape with raw personalities in it,” McClatchy said.  “This is an emotional landscape as well as a physical one, and I tried to reflect that in the libretto.”
 
For Picker, this will be the second opera with a Maine setting.  Emmeline was set in the inland town of Fayette.  Picker describes the feeling of the opera’s music as being an interplay of darkness and light.
 
“It’s passionate and emotional music.  Sometimes it’s very dark, at times it’s funny,” Picker said.
 
The levity breaks the shadowy mood in two party scenes.
 
“I have to thank Gilbert and Sullivan for that,” said Picker. 
 
Nonetheless, it is a work seamed with tragedy, as befits King.
 
“It’s grand opera, and it’s quite dark,” Picker said.
  
So what leaps out from that?
  
  • It's quite respectful of King's work.  I can easily imagine many/most reporters assigned to cover opera being disdainful of popular works like King's, but the general tone of this article -- perhaps set by the tone struck by both Picker and McClatchey -- is one of acceptance of King as a viable positive force for culture.
  • Tobias Picker was a fan of the movie who then became a fan of the novel, and in both cases he perhaps got there as a result of his own interest in writing "strong female roles."  Interesting.  Take that, haters of King's so-called "feminist" years!  Those books brought new fans in.
  • Such a thing as "a maverick commissioner of operas" apparently exists, and in the form of David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera.  I immediately want to know more about this, but am opting to allow it to remain outside the purview of this post.
  • Ortiz claims that Dolores Claiborne was the #1 fiction hardback of the entire year 1992.  I see no reason to doubt him.  Again, haters: you can suck it.
  • Emmeline sounds demented.
  • The librettist/composer relationship sounds interesting.  This must obviously be an essential component in the crafting of an opera, and it's one that I have no real sense of.  I kind of assume it is not unlike the relationship between a screenwriter and a director, but this may be totally false.
  • The notion of the actors singing time-shifts within a single song is instantly compelling to me, because it signals that this adaptation -- and, by the way, the notion of in-scene time-shifts is drawn straight from the movie, not from the novel -- was devised to take advantage of its medium.  I would tend to assume that this is a step toward serving the goal of primarily making a good opera; and this should always be the goal of any adaptation in any medium.  Be a good representation of what you are first, and a good reflection of the thing you are based on second.  Get that order wrong, and you may well be doomed.

In other words, I like the sound of this project based on this single article.

Just a few days later, on August 26, news broke that mezzo Dolora Zajick had withdrawn from the starring role and would be replaced by soprano Patricia Racette.  This article at Opera News gives us a few details:
  
  • Racette was announced as the new Dolores for the first four of the six scheduled perormances; the remaining two would be sung by Catherine Cook, who had spent the last few weeks attending rehearsals as the designated cover for the title role.
  • Zajick's departure was agreed upon mutually by herself and general director David Gockley.  In a statement, she said, "I am devastated that I am unable to continue my work on Dolores Claiborne. The opera proved to be more challenging physically and vocally than I had anticipated and, exacerbated by my knee problems, I feel it is best to withdraw at this point rather than try to push forward.  I sincerely wish the cast, the incredible production team and Tobias good luck with the remaining rehearsals and the opening.  I will miss being part of it."
  • Gockley also issued a statement: "We were aware earlier this summer that there was a problem when Dolora cancelled her engagement at the Orange Festival and had hoped her pain and mobility issues would be less problematic here. We’ve been working on how to adjust the Dolores Claiborne staging and production in order to find a middle ground, but it ultimately proved to be too physically demanding.  This decision for Dolora to withdraw from the project was mutually agreed upon and she regrets having to bow out at this late date.  She has also expressed her utmost concern for the remaining rehearsal process and ultimate world premiere.  I look forward to welcoming Dolora back to the War Memorial Opera House stage in future seasons and wish her a full recovery.  I am very grateful to Patricia Racette for stepping in at this late date in the rehearsal period and agreeing to take on this very demanding role, particularly while she is here performing in Mefistofele."

Let's move onto an interview with Picker conducted by Opera Today and published on August 30, 2013.  I'm going to pinch an image of Picker they ran, too:


Photo © 2005 Harry Heleotis, who hopefully doesn't mind me using it.

The entire interview is worth reading, but here are some bits that are especially interesting to us:

  • Asked if it was difficult to get the rights to Dolores Claiborne for operatic adaptation, Picker answers: "It was not at all hard at that time, but now it might well be a different story.  With the help of Andrew Welch, a London theatrical producer who had adapted several of King’s works for the stage, including this one, I got the rights to both Dolores Claiborne and Misery.  King kept the right to approve the scenarios and the librettos for any operas made from the novels.  He was happy to approve our work on Claiborne and we have his blessing to go forward."  Interesting!  No opera based on Misery has yet been produced, but maybe someday.  It's also intriguing that King reserved the right to shut things down if he didn't approve of the libretto.  Can't say I blame him, although I wonder where that sort of guiding hand was when it came to some of the movie and television adaptations.
  • Asked how McClatchy and he selected what scenes they would use, Picker answers: "First, we filtered out all the scenes that were not absolutely crucial to the plot.  You can spend days reading a book, but an opera has to get its story across to the audience in a couple of hours.  We only wanted to use elements of the story that moved the plot forward and would hold the attention of the audience.  Because we were working in a different medium, we created our new structure using the scenes from the novel that revealed the most about the characters.  Since the opera takes place as Dolores tells her story to the police, she walks in and out of the interrogation room as she tells of her past life.  When she is out of the room, instead of reading her words we see the part of the story she is telling.  Both the movie and the opera dramatize some of King’s most visual scenes, but the opera is most definitely based on the book.  Since the words of the opera are sung, more has to be portrayed with far fewer words and only the most important material can be used."
  • The interviewer asks what some of the differences are between the Zajick and Racette versions of the role.  Picker answers, "There are very few differences.  Here and there something is lower or higher.  That is about it.  Whenever I have a new opera in production, there are changes and adjustments to be made in the last minute.  This is also true of every other aspect of the show, but none of these are changes the public could possibly notice."
  • It is mentioned that the conductor will be George Manahan, who had also conducted the Santa Fe and New York premieres of Emmeline for Picker.
  • Picker seems optimistic that the King association might help bring new fans to the medium:  "Stephen King is one of America’s finest storytellers and Dolores Claiborne is a wonderful original story.  Many people who have not previously been interested in opera want to see that story onstage, so it may bring new people to opera."

An Opera News piece dated September 2013 -- I believe this may mean there is a print magazine version --  has some good stuff in it.  For example, it has these photos of Picker:
  
  

copyright Gregory Downer, 2013
  
The article's author, Brian Kellow, strikes a mildly hoity-toity tone near the outset: "Over the past two decades, when general directors of American opera companies have turned their attention to commissioning works, they have more often than not gravitated toward respected literary sources — The Great Gatsby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Little Women, Anna Karenina, Miss Lonelyhearts, An American Tragedy, Elmer Gantry, The Secret Garden.  Clearly, these choices of subject matter involve marketing-based thinking — namely, title recognition and the resonance of popular movies based on these works.  But there's probably something else operating here — an elevated feeling on the part of the commissioners that only major literary classics are worthy of being adapted into operas.  So the slobs among us with an unapologetic taste for pulp fiction were encouraged when San Francisco Opera announced a few seasons ago that it had commissioned Tobias Picker to compose Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King's best-selling novel, first published in 1992."
  
Kellow goes on to describe the novel as "a typically ripping King read" and single out the author's "incredibly vivid dialogue," so this statement isn't quite as snobbish as it might at first seem; he seems like a fan.  It does not surprise me at all to learn that there was perhaps some resistance from the opera establishment to King serving as source material, nor does it surprise me that the idea has its adherents.
  
The article was evidently published prior to Dolora Zajick's departure from the title role.  It states (somewhat skeptically) that Zajick had had the idea to turn the novel into an opera at around the same time Picker had, and that she had wanted Scott Wheeler to compose it for her.  But apparently Picker's connections were better, so King granted him the rights.  Still, Zajick has some thoughts on the role: "I wanted a role I could age in, because there's this big move about young and pretty and fresh.  There's a place for that, but there's a place for older people, too.  Older people and fat people have lives, too.  Why not make a major opera role around one of those characters?"
  
Kellow writes that Picker approached Gockley with the idea that the opera would be a vehicle for Racette; but Gockley preferred Zajick, who he referred to as "the Kathy Bates of opera."  Picker pressed on with the idea of Racette, but eventually backed off: "I said, 'It's your company, and you're casting it.  I have only casting consultation, not casting approval.  I didn't hear from David anymore.  It just went silent."
  
At about this time, there was talk of Washington National Opera doing a Stephen King double bill consisting of both Dolores Claiborne and Misery.  Both would star Racette; the latter would star Plácido Domingo, who would also conduct Dolores Claiborne (Picker himself was the would-be conductor of Misery).  Part of the allure for Domingo was apparently to do something he had never done before: sing and conduct in the same night.  This was in 2008, and the recession brought the plans to an end.  Picker also struck out at his next potential stage, Santa Fe Opera; this, too, was seemingly due to the recession.
  
By late 2010, Picker and Gockley were talking about Dolores Claiborne again, and by February of 2011 a deal had been struck: with Zajick in the lead.
  
Picker next turned his attentions toward finding a librettist, and his regular dude, Gene Scheer, was not available.  So he turned to J.D. "Sandy" McClatchy, with whom he had not been in touch since the librettist wrote Emmeline for him twelve years earlier.  Picker has some things to say that pushed me a little further toward understanding the composer/librettist collaboration: "When I couldn't write, Gene would always say, 'Let's go for a bike ride.'  We would ride down to Chelsea Pier and have gelato.  Sandy has a different way of getting me going — he does it verbally with his sense of humor and confidence.  It is, after all, one of the librettist's main jobs to get the best music out of the composer — not just to hand in the libretto and then move away and never talk about it.  Gene is a lyricist and songwriter, and Sandy is a poet, so the rhythm and choice of the words is very different."
  
Kellow has an interesting observation about the score: "In many modern works, the characters tend to sound similar, meandering around in endless arioso.  Picker's music for Dolores Claiborne is characterized by various shades of agita — the scene in which Joe falls down the well is amazingly aggressive, harmonically — and he has worked hard to create a sharply defined musical vocabulary for each character."  I don't really know what any of that means, but I'm happy to know it.
  
Picker expounds upon that somewhat: "The harmonies come out of the names.  It's word painting — the pitches are derived from the letters of the names.  Selena is always an A-minor chord.  There's a Vera Donovan chord — very regal.  All the characters have different tones, different ways of expressing themselves musically."  This sounds like the kind of thing I'd be into, if only I could hear the goddamn thing some day!
  
McClatchy says, "what I liked about the character of Dolores is that she is a traditional sort of suffering woman in the line of Puccini heroines.  But all the sacrifices she makes were to save her daughter, and then at the end to have her daughter turn her back on her is an interesting shift in the usual emotional arc of an opera.  That appealed to me."
  
McClatchy also has something to say about Selena, who has apparently been turned into a high-powered attorney, rather than a journalist: she is "self-indulgent — someone who has used her own particular power to no particular good."  
  
Picker, to leaven this, has given her a major aria in which she sings of both the eclipse and her parents' relationship.  She is to be played by Susannah Biller, who says, "I think it takes years for people who have gone through the kind of abuse that Selena has to be able to live with it.  I don't think that trauma ever fully leaves you."
  
Hey, we're getting some pretty good stuff here!
  
And now, it's about time for the opera to open.  Our first review will come from Opera News's writeup of the September 18 opening performance.  Reckon they'd mind me posting the entire thing?  I'm going to give it a shot.  Here it comes:

"With its lurid atmosphere of abuse, rage and murder, Dolores Claiborne was an apt choice for a new work of American verismo.  That's what was promised when San Francisco Opera commissioned composer Tobias Picker and librettist J. D. McClatchy to adapt Stephen King's 1992 novel, and it's what was delivered on opening night of the company's world-premiere production at the War Memorial Opera House (seen Sept. 18.)  Conducted by George Manahan, directed by James Robinson and starring a magnificently focused Patricia Racette in the title role, the opera preserved the oppressive atmosphere of violence and despair in King's tale of a Maine domestic worker driven to extremity by the cruelty of her husband, Joe St. George, and her employer, the wealthy Vera Donovan.  Picker's impressively large-scale score builds tension with insinuating motifs, helter-skelter rhythms and gripping climaxes; the plot turns on Joe's molestation of their daughter, Selena, and Picker signals the crime with a lilting song that foreshadows the harrowing retribution to come.  The composer saves his best for the trio of women — rhapsodic arias for Dolores and Selena, a couple of brisk numbers for Vera — and Act I ends with a gorgeous quartet for Dolores, Vera, Joe and Selena.  Apart from a few revisions — the omission of Vera's postman, the change of the older Selena from journalist to lawyer — McClatchy's beautifully crafted libretto hews to the novel's outline, employing the police interrogation into the deaths of Joe and Vera as a framing device while opening the story and fleshing out the characters in eminently theatrical terms.
  
Manahan, striving for balance and forward thrust, conducted a fervent, illuminating performance, and Robinson's staging was first-rate, making canny use of Allen Moyers's split-level set, Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Greg Emetaz's projections to evoke fog-swept Little Tall Island, the ferry to Vera's estate, the claustrophobic interior and scrubby yard of the St. George home.  The plot twists posed significant directorial challenges, but Robinson and his design team met them with convincing results. 
  
The cast was superb.  Racette, replacing the originally scheduled Dolora Zajick (who withdrew from the production in August, by mutual agreement with the company), summoned her apparently limitless vocal and dramatic resources in the title role.  Looking distinctly un-glamorous in a dowdy brown coat and head scarf (costumes by James Schuette) and singing with plush, expansive tone, the soprano created a rough-hewn character of pathos, intelligence and a beleaguered nobility, one that recalled nothing so much as her brilliant Jenůfa for this company in 2001.  Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a vibrant presence as Vera, and Susannah Biller, despite some strain in the role's upper reaches, was an affecting Selena.  Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges made an aptly scabrous Joe, tenor Greg Fedderly imparted an aggressive edge to Detective Thibodeau, and Joel Sorenson delivered a contemporary sort of modern patter number as the bank manager Mr. Pease.  Nikki Einfeld, Jacqueline Piccolino, Marina Harris, Laura Krumm and Renée Rapier sang prettily as Vera's maids, and Robert Watson, A. J. Glueckert, and Hadleigh Adams offered a smart comic turn as the upper-crust party guests Cox, Knox and Fox.  A significant new work, Dolores Claiborne was a triumph for all concerned — and a milestone for Racette, who had opened in San Francisco's Mefistofele just days earlier.  Operagoers were already calling 2013–14 the 'Racette Season'; the soprano will return to the company in June to star in Show Boat and Madama Butterfly."

And hey, how about a couple of photos?


Biller, Futral and Racette in the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Racette as Dolores Claiborne
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Classical Voice North America also had some nice things to say (and a few critical ones) in its review:

  • Reviewer Robert P. Commanday credits Picker's new work with "reassuring us that new opera is really possible.  A composer today who can write music for the orchestra that gives another level of meaning to what’s being sung and is at once engaging."
  • Picker's "restraint, selectivity and invention produced a deft and arresting score.  Instead of an explicit and massive orchestration underlying the voices in the film-score manner, there is a chamber-orchestra quality in the writing, two parts dueting here, three parts there, and light applications of color and often lyric, melodious instrumental writing that comments on the dramatic narrative and never covers the voices."
  • Commanday gives us more information than we (meaning I) previously had regarding the actual staging.  Referring to the production as "a gem," he says that Allen Moyer's sets "make ingenious use of moving elements, the great staircase that figures in Vera’s death, an upper level used for Vera’s great July 4th party (big chorus) and, later, the split stage with Dolores above, the grown up Selena below, lamenting her state.  There’s a scene of moving brushy landscape across which Dolores leads her intoxicated husband, Joe St. George, to fall into a well to his death.  A scene on the ferry produces the illusion of its progression out to the Maine island where this all takes place, via the moving projection of the other boats and shoreline."
  • There are also projections by Greg Emetaz; it and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind "worked eloquently."
  • Commanday has nothing but praise for Racette, who "was a heroine in every sense.  Despite being still committed to the lead in Boito’s Mefistofele, running now in alternation with Claiborne, she took on the role of Dolores after Dolora Zajick bowed out just weeks ago.  Talk about endurance, courage!  Padded to look and act frumpy, the handsome diva sang the role splendidly, and to moving effect.  Her aria, 'When I was young my daddy took me on this same ferry,' was touching.  And she pulled off the role of a tough, hardened woman – 'God won’t forgive me but he’s gonna shut his eyes' (sung before the murder)."
  • He's also positive on the performance of Elizabeth Futral as Vera; less so about her role itself: "Futral’s soprano is brilliant, but the part lay too consistently in the stratosphere, so the supertitles really mattered.  She was convincing as the aged, helpless, angry invalid.  They all sang well, but having all three central women be sopranos was too much.  Contrast was wanted."
  • More praise comes for Susannah Biller as [sic] "Elena."  Commanday says, "Susannah Biller was remarkable as the 14-year-old frightened, withdrawn Elena, singing sensitively her aria, 'A moment ago, but so long ago, it was just another day' – one of librettist McClatchy’s poetic inspirations.  As the tough adult, she was remorseless, and her final line, 'Everything I did for myself,' implied that perhaps she was not entirely unreceptive to her father’s advances, while Dolores, left standing, sang simply, 'I did what I could' as the curtain fell."  Huh.  Well, that's an interesting note about Selena's potential complicity; one hopes that is merely Commanday reading into things things which should not be read.

What's that?  More photos?  You bet, comin' right up:



Patricia Racette and Wayne Tigges


Elizabeth Futral

projections by Greg Emetaz representing the murdered Joe

Racette

Susannah Biller, whose posture here is seemingly designed to provoke me into declaring that she is smokin' hot, which I shall happily do, because she is.


All those photos are credited to Cory Weaver of the San Francisco Opera.

More kinds words came courtesy of San Francisco Classical Voice, whose September 18 review contained such effusive praise as:

  • "Tragedies of gods and kings in opera are easy to take, given the distance, and at times it's possible to focus on the drama and beauty of the music independently of the subject.  What's Hecuba to us; why should we weep for her?  And yet, tears are natural and undeniable when hearing Berlioz' music for Hécube.  But what if the subject is a bleak tragedy of the abuse of wife and child, murder, sustained loneliness, and despair among ordinary people, quite without the distance of Olympus or ancient Troy?  Such was the challenge met with triumph tonight at the San Francisco Opera premiere of Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, the unblinking treatment of a true, raw, and difficult to take story of desperate lives.  All the while, the music is not divorced from the drama, and eventually provides a measure of catharsis, unshared by the characters themselves."  There's an interesting subtext to that sentiment: the supposedly-pulp nature of King's source material is, if only indirectly, being championed here as a major virtue in its ability to connect with a potential audience.  This veers close to being an argument for populist opera.
  • A few interesting bits of info come out of reviewer Janos Gereben's praise of Racette: "The ovation Racette received after the final curtain from a large audience — including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and numerous composers, including Jake Heggie — came after her stepping into the long, difficult role weeks before the premiere when Dolora Zajick withdrew, and singing faultlessly and marvelously through the opera's two-hour length.  This was also the night after one of her numerous Mefistofele appearances, all in glorious, unstinting voice, with convincing stage presence, and her usual excellent diction, so important in an English-language opera.  The instant transformation of a glamorous opera star into the frumpy, downtrodden, abused housekeeper, trying desperately to save her daughter from incest, is a theatrical coup."  One of the things I've wondered at times during my research into this opera is whether it's even vaguely illustrious for an American opera to premiere outside New York City.  I know that the perception of plays and musicals is a bit lessened unless they premiere on Broadway, so I wonder if the same is true of operas.  But if the San Francisco Opera is drawing a freakin' Supreme Court justice on opening night, I guess that's an indication that this is no podunk operation.  ("Opera"tion.  Get it?  GET IT?!?  Ahem...sorry.)  
  • Also, another question -- and McMolo, this is a question expressly for you -- came up: is a opera singer in a lead role performing two different roles on successive evenings AS impressive as this reviewer makes it sound?  I tend to think it is; my first thought was that it sounded a bit like a pitcher starting on two consecutive evenings.
  • "Wildly and — again — fascinatingly eclectic, with jagged edges, using different voices and styles, the orchestral part of Picker's work qualifies Dolores as a first-class work."  Cool.  Sure do wish I could buy a copy on Blu-ray.  I'd settle for an audio-only CD, even.
  • "The great soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donavan, Dolores’ demanding boss, and theatrically brilliant novice Susannah Biller as Selena St. George, Dolores’ daughter, heroically handle the impossibly high tessitura written for them.  It's not their fault that the roles of Vera Donavan and Selena St. George, respectively, often sound screechy.  Their acting, in these difficult and demanding roles, is admirable."  Screechy?  I can kind of see that, I guess.  If the operatic Selena is anything like the cinematic one, she does exist mostly at odds with the other characters; and Vera does for much of her presence, too.  Still, I'm going to warn you once: don't you speak about Susannah Biller in the negative, because


This photo has nothing to do with Dolores Claiborne; I found it on Biller's website.  And after I gawped at it for a bit, I passed it on to you.  Sorry about all the objectification.


  • and I'm just not inclined to allow it.  Okay, where was I?
  • "Just where you would expect 'ugly music' (a la Elektra), for the abusive, thoroughly loathsome character of the husband, Wayne Tigges is given a few measures of quiet singing, sandwiched between all the big, hulking, threatening sounds he produces so convincingly."
  • Gereben concludes thus (referring to the production itself): "I hope other companies will take a chance on this brash, defiant, successful newcomer."  More on which in a bit.

 Here are a couple more photos from Cory Weaver:


I wish I could find a bigger version of this.  If I understand what I'm seeing, that's a projection that establishes the large-scale setting, with a partial set intended to be an interior to it.

Biller, Tigges, and Racette


Say, remember a few sentences ago, when I wondered if an opera premiering in San Francisco was inherently less prestigious than one debuting in New York?  Well, I still don't 100% have an answer to that, but a review of Dolores Claiborne appeared in the New York Times on September 20.  So that ain't nothing.

They weren't terribly impressed, however.  Reviewer Zachary Woolfe begins by singling Racette out for praise, not so much for her on-stage actions as her behind-the-scenes actions in taking the role on (given the short notice provided by Zajick's departure).  "Ms. Racette’s admirable move was that of an authentic trouper, a gutsy act that should not be underestimated, particularly since Ms. Racette is concurrently starring in Boito’s Mefistofele.  You want her to succeed.  If in the end, though, she merely acquits herself nicely, it is more the fault of Mr. Picker and his librettist, the poet J. D. McClatchy, than it is hers.  Their drab Dolores has a drab Dolores at its center."

Alright, now we're getting some of the cultural-elitist snobbery I had expected to encounter!

Oh, but wait!  Here's how Woolfe follows up that statement: "Which is surprising, since dullness is the one thing you couldn’t accuse Mr. King’s 1992 best seller of being."  Now that's an interesting twist in this review.  Woolfe goes on to parenthetically mention that an opera based on The Shining is expected to opean at the Minnesota Opera in 2016.  This is the earliest mention of that work that I know of; and someday, I hope -- since that entire opera streamed on public radio and got added to the official Truth Inside The Lie audio archives -- to cover that opera here, or at least convince Dog Star Omnibus to take on the assignment!  Perhaps even a Marvel-style team-up issue could be in order.

Anyways, Dolores Claiborne.

  • "Not for nothing is the San Francisco Opera calling Mr. Picker’s Dolores Claiborne an American Tosca.  But Puccini, ruthlessly effective in his melody and his dramaturgy, makes you believe, to the depths of your being, in the love that propels Tosca’s fate forward and the evil that stands in her way.  His pacing is swift and inexorable.  Mr. Picker and Mr. McClatchy, on the other hand, have created an opera that hovers rather than hurtles.  While we are told that Dolores cares for Selena — they sing a duet, after all — we never feel it, so her sacrifice doesn’t pack any punch."  You could argue that this is a problem with the movie, as well; it depends entirely upon whether you buy into Kathy Bates's  chemistry with Jennifer Jason Leigh.  I do, so it works for me; but if it didn't, eesh.  I might not want to see that movie.  Woolfe seems to be saying that these operatic versions of Dolores and Selena lack chemistry in and of the roles themselves; he does not seem to be faulting Racette or Biller.
  • Woolfe is by no means entirely negative.  Of Picker, he says: "His score, cleanly arranged for a traditional orchestra, is consistent and coherent in its post-Romantic brooding rather than fashionably eclectic.  Conducted by George Manahan, it simmers clearly enough to make all the exposition audible; the scenes are separated by interludes full of grand waves of sound."
  • Also: "There are lovely details throughout.  Early in the first act, Vera’s admonition to her maids about properly hanging the sheets to dry, set to angular jitters, opens up into sumptuous ardor, then closes again into anxiety, with an ease of transition that recalls Janacek."  I've got no clue who that is.  I bet I could Google it.  Yep.
  • "The collaborators have invented an ingeniously creepy nursery rhyme for Joe (the resonant, fearless bass-baritone Wayne Tigges) to sing as he molests Selena, with a translucent, percussive accompaniment."  Well, now, that's a tantalizing bit of description!  It frustrates me mightily to have to imagine what this means; because I've got no real ability to do so.  I've got no fake ability to do so, for that matter.  I'm 100% shit-outta-luck.
  • "But as with too much contemporary American opera, the vocal lines, stranded between speaking and singing, dissonance and tonal lyricism, leave sen-TEN-ces with odd, stil-TED STRESS-es.  And the trappings of traditional grand opera, embraced by Mr. Picker, don’t serve this particular story."  I've learned from conversations with McMolo that the language in which an opera is written has a major impact on its singability, and that some languages either ARE inherently better suited to it than others, or seem that way.  English appears not to be one of those, so an English-language opera is perhaps always beginning with a pulled hamstring.
  • "Two soaring arias, one for Dolores and one for Selena, both seem extraneous, meant to relieve tension but serving only to halt momentum.  (Selena’s, sung with pure tone by the soprano Susannah Biller, is an ode to the stars, that ultimate poetic cliché.)"  Speaking of tone, you'd best watch yours, Woolfe; I don't think I like what you're implying here.
  • "More troublingly extraneous is Vera herself. Sung with a bright edge and acted as a WASP caricature by the soprano Elizabeth Futral, she seems charmingly quirky rather than malignantly harsh, making Dolores’s boisterous venom toward her puzzling."  Hmm.  Okay, well, now, that sounds like a potentially legitimate criticism to me.
  • "You get the sense that Mr. Picker and Mr. McClatchy didn’t know exactly what to do with Vera and her complex relationship with Dolores, as well as the impression that the work might have been more powerful if she had been excised entirely, along with the unwieldy interrogation frame that comes with her.  The simple story of a woman who is driven by desperation to kill her husband and who, in the process, loses the love of the child she seeks only to protect: sure, it would have been a more radical adaptation of Mr. King’s novel, but also a streamlined, moving opera."  Now, that's kind of a fascinating idea.  The movie version could theoretically have been adapted in a similar manner.  Not sure it should have been, but it's an interesting idea.
  • "While the composer made revisions once his leading lady changed from a mezzo to a soprano, he couldn’t retool the entire role.  It has high notes aplenty, which Ms. Racette reached without strain, but spends much of the opera lower down, in registers that she can’t access with the necessary searing power."  I'm hampered by my inability to hear the opera to begin with, but then even if I could I'd be hampered by an incredibly novice ear for the medium.  That said, it sure sounds to me like this Woolfe fella knows what he's talking about.  It's possible he's also being overly persnickety, in the way true fans of anything can be.  (I know all about it; just consult my almost-certainly-too-demanding review of The Outsider.)
  • "So the crucial moment when she stands up to the abusive Joe, smashing a pitcher against his head and telling him, 'You hit me one time too many,' wasn’t as harrowing as it could have been.  And the opera’s final scene, with Dolores left defiantly alone, went for little."  That's true of the movie, too; it's interesting to consider that this opera may have mostly ignored the movie only to replicate one of its biggest problems.  As for the pitcher-to-head act of defiance, boy, that's a shame if they managed not to nail that scene.
  • "Going for little has unfortunately been a pattern in some of San Francisco Opera’s recent commissions."  Ouch.
  • "Part of the trouble may be the grand-opera model itself.  Dolores Claiborne feels at its core like a monodrama or chamber work.  It’s an intimate tale that has been stretched to fill an evening-length two-act structure and a 3,000-seat hall — and it’s not the only recent American opera that has felt similar strain.  Stories, just like voices, come in different sizes."

And on that critical but not entirely dismissive note, the review ends.  We'll let another photo by Cory Weaver take us out to the next one:




Let's look now at some thoughts from Richard Scheinin, who reviewed the opening night for the Mercury News of San Jose.

  • "War Memorial Opera House is a house of singing, and oh, what singing there is in Dolores Claiborne, composer Tobias Picker’s new opera based on the bestselling Stephen King novel."  We'll go ahead and mark Scheinin in the pro- column, I guess.  Cool!
  • "Motivation, pacing and dramatic impact are not this opera’s strong points.  Stuff just sort of happens."  Uh oh.  Maybe I've been too hasty.
  • "Maybe you’ve seen the 1995 movie, with Kathy Bates in the title role.  The opera is about the same length: two hours, but it feels more compressed, patchier and less shaded in characterization."  Alright, now, somebody stop me if I'm walking out on a limb that's obviously too thin to support my weight, but ... isn't almost ANY stage production bound to be less shaded in characterization than most good movies?  The ability of cinema to achieve close-ups on the performers surely makes nuanced performance vastly easier than a stage-bound work's ability to communicate.  Note that I'm not saying the shaded performances are absent on the stage; but the communication of them to the audience cannot be easy.  Hence the notion of playing to back rows.  Am I wrong about this being a somewhat empty criticism of the opera in comparison to the film?
  • "Picker’s neo-Romantic score is a mish-mash.  There’s a dirge.  There’s a ditty, a creepy number, sung by Joe whenever he seduces daughter Selena.  There are attempts at rhapsody.  There’s pulsing post-minimalism.  There’s a recurring bass line out of the Get Smart theme song.  There are echoes of Bernard Herrmann and George Gershwin, sometimes in a single package.  Most of it is unremarkable."  The notion of Picker perhaps tipping his cap toward Herrmann intrigues me.  In general; but also because I find Taylor Hackford's direction in the movie to be somewhat in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, for whom Herrmann was a major collaborator.
  • "And more than once, vague Broadway echoes are out of sync with the material, as in the second act, when I half-expected graceful tenor Greg Fedderly (almost too gallant as Detective Thibodeau) to break into a chorus of 'It Ain’t Necessarily So' as he badgers poor Dolores, accused of murder.  'You said you didn’t kill her and that don’t prove a thing./But I got proof, Dolores. I got the proof right here!'  Well, it ain’t necessarily a great score."  Detective Thibodeau, eh?  I can only assume that this is the operatic version of John Mackey.  And since neither Mackey nor Thibodeau exist in the novel, I'm growing less convinced all the while by the assertions of Picker and McClatchy that the opera is based primarily on the novel.  Maybe it is, but a lot of the movie potentially seems to be popping up as well.  Which is fine!  I've got not issue with that.
  • "But it’s a handsome production: Allen Moyer’s multimedia sets are cinematic, taking us into grand interiors; or on a ferry ride across a broad bay; or out into the Maine fields, topped by blue skies and then a solar eclipse."  I wish I had more photos of this stuff, which sounds cool.
  • Scheinin is very impressed by Racette: "In record time, Racette — who took over the role of Dolores after mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick pulled out because of health problems — has mastered the thorny 245-page score, which frequently pushes her soprano down to sub-basement levels.  No problem."
  • "As Selena, soprano Susannah Biller is remarkable: a red-hot, supple and full-voiced singer, scaling the extreme heights assigned by the score."  Mm-hmm.  Red-hot and supple, you say?  I'm going to move on before I get myself in trouble.
  • "As evil Joe, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges sings with taut muscularity; he reeks of sin."  As well he should!
  • "But excuse me, is there an elephant in the room?"  I don't know, dude, you tell me.  "The world of contemporary opera too often is a world of sophisticated blandness.  Picker’s new work is several steps up from Mark Adamo’s lifeless Mary Magdalene, which premiered at War Memorial in June.  But it still feels hermetic.  You have to wonder when some composer will come along and clear the decks, reclaiming rhythm and melody for opera, adding some juice to the enterprise.  You know, open the windows.  Let the sun shine in.  That doesn’t mean pandering.  Verdi did it.  John Adams has done it."  The idea of sophisticated blandness intrigues me.  As I've hopefully not banged on TOO much about, I don't know enough about opera to have a handle on what Scheinin means here.  But I feel like I can connect it to modern television, specifically to The Walking Dead, which airs on AMC, the network that gave the world Mad Men and Breaking BadThe Walking Dead sometimes seems as if its producers think it is every bit as deep and meaningful as those two AMC forerunners were.  It isn't; it's not even in the same ballpark, or league, or sport.  Which is fine; it need not be.  But in pretending to be, it cheapens itself.  I sense that Scheinin is saying something similar here.
  • He closes on this note: "Finally, this question: Which general director of a major opera company, when it’s time to commission another production, will get up the nerve to say to its prospective composer, 'Look, I will pay you good money to do this, but, let’s not include more than a few minutes of speech-song in your score'?  Picker’s nearly two-hour score must have — I’m guessing — 30 minutes of such angular, leap-about declamations.  It’s part of an epidemic; too much."  I understand none of that, but sense that Scheinin has very clear expectations that modern American opera is consistently failing to meet.  




Gross.


Bloomberg was utterly unimpressed, stating the following:

  • "You may have seen the 1995 movie with Kathy Bates.  You do not need to see the opera."
  • "Other than selling a few tickets on the King name, it was hard to see why anyone thought this small-scale melodrama would make for a grand-scale opera."
  • "Why a major company would invest resources in telling her story is a secret much more interesting than the one poor, abused Dolores is trying to hide."
  • "And wasn’t it a little naive to expect Zajick, 61, a mezzo with a tiny repertoire and a host of issues (don’t approach wearing cologne) to learn a new role?"  Now, there's the kind of cattiness of didn't I expected until I finally found it!
  • "All along there are all too many expository sentences. 'I’m a useless old woman/ A pest and a problem,' sings Vera, Claiborne’s employer, played by Elizabeth Futral."
  • "Claiborne’s orchestration seemed strangely removed from the vocals.  It was as if Picker had written two pieces of music with little thought to how they would fit together.  Stylistically, the score ranged from minimal to grandiose musical."
  • "That Claiborne’s role, written for a booming mezzo, could easily be reconfigured for a soprano, suggests he has little sense for expressing character through vocal timbre and range."  I have to admit that that sounds as if it could be a valid criticism.
  • "Greg Fedderly was stuck in the thankless role of Detective Thibodeau.  'I’m going to trap you,' he sings to Claiborne.  'I’m going to get the truth.'  Riveting stuff."

The WQXR (New York) review was written by Fred Plotkin, whose bio runs six paragraphs and is not quite AS great as you might be led to believe based on his photo:




Nevertheless, it states that he "is one of America’s foremost experts on opera" and that he "has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher."  Not merely a teacher; a compelling teacher.  He is also "an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information."

And so forth.  He's a Wes Anderson character, more or less, which arguably makes him EXACTLY the kind of guy I'd trust to tell me whether this fucking opera is actually any goddamn good or not.

So let's see what he has to say on the subject:

  • "The world premiere of a new opera is always an important occasion, one that merits our attention and gladdens the heart of anyone who loves the art form."  Okay; medium first, production later.  This is the kind of partisanship I can understand.
  • "Its creators, starting with composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchy, are all practiced hands and did an excellent job of translating this story from Stephen King’s 1993 novel into a work that is fully viable on the opera stage."  That shitty Bloomberg review is beginning to seem like a hatchet job from an inferior source.
  • "I very seldom write reviews, for a couple of reasons.  First, because I don't care to keep my senses and perceptions in 'critical mode' while seeing and hearing a performance.  I prefer to be in the moment and to not feel compelled to analyze.  I get much more out of an opera if I just let it seep in and then reflect on it after.  Secondly, I often know—and in some cases am friends with—people involved in a particular opera production.  I could not fairly review people I know and might have worked with.  So I do not plan, in strict terms, to review Dolores Claiborne."  Well, fuck-a-doodle-doo.  Okay.  I get it, though.  I find myself far more satisfied by NOT jumping into a review of something I haven't lived with for a while.  I may well be done with reviewing brand-new King books/stories/movies/teevee around here; I've threatened/promised that before, and keep failing to follow through on it.  And if this Fred Plotkin fella endorses that approach, it's probably good enough for me, though I own zero ascots.
  • "And yet there was one obvious question that struck me when I heard the announcement of the cast change: Dolora Zajick is a mezzo-soprano whose rich, powerful voice lies much lower than Racette’s spinto soprano.  Racette certainly has vocal power and sings and acts with drama and intelligence, but her sound is very different from Zajick’s.  The mezzo was in Tobias Picker's mind and ears as he composed the role of Dolores Claiborne.  How, I wondered, could a soprano, even one with all of Racette’s gifts, assume a role that had been composed for a singer whose voice’s centrality is much lower, even if Zajick commands secure high notes?  I sent an e-mail to find out.  On September 10, I received an answer from a representative at the opera who consulted with Jon Finck, director of communications and public affairs at the SFO."  Ooh!  This is tantalizing.
  • Here is Finck's response to Plotkin (italicized emphasis being that of Finck himself): "Tobias Picker is currently in rehearsal with Ms. Racette and with Catherine Cook (the mezzo who will play Dolores at two of the performances), working with them individually and responding to their separate questions about the score.  For both artists, he is truly tailoring the score to meet the individual needs and comfort levels of their respective vocal abilities.  He is providing modifications to some measures, or a phrase here and there, but all of this is minor and he is absolutely not rewriting the vocal parts or re-orchestrating the opera.  Tobias composed the score with Dolora Zajick’s powerful voice and vocal range in mind: incredible low notes and high notes alike.  With that in mind, the role can be assigned to both mezzo or soprano, and yes, with some alterations."
  • Plotkin goes on from there to provide three paragraphs' worth of examples of this sort of thing having been done before.  I have to confess, ol' boy sounds like he knows what he's talking about.  I instinctively trust him.
  • "Patricia Racette was vocally and dramatically convincing as Dolores, a remarkable fact given that she stepped into the role less than a month ago, had to learn music, words, staging and develop a characterization.  All of this while rehearsing and then appearing at SFO in the roles of Elena and Margherita in Boito’s Mefistofele.  In some performances of this opera she will only sing Margherita, although she is scheduled to sing both roles in the performance I will attend Friday evening.  There were certain moments as Dolores when lower notes were beyond her reach, but that would be expected in this circumstance.  Racette saved the day and the opera."
  • "What I have been thinking about, since hearing the opera, is what Tobias Picker’s original ideas might have been.  There was a beautiful trio that included Dolores and the characters of Selena (her daughter) and Vera (her employer).  Both roles were written for high soprano and were sung by Susannah Biller and Elizabeth Futral.  Clearly, Zajick’s earthy voice was meant to contrast musically with the two higher voices.  As heard on opening night, the trio was sung by three sopranos and the effect was very different."  And here, I perhaps take another tiny step toward an understanding of what it must be like to be hardcore interested in opera.  Asked a month ago whether it made the slightest bit of difference whether an opera singer was a soprano or some other type of ... hey, what's the word for vocal classification?  Anyways, would it matter if a singer was one or the other or a different one?  I'd have likely said no, that one simply sang with what one has.  The idea that a composer might tailor the role specifically for a TYPE of voice has likely never crossed my mind.  Fascinating!  And Plotkin's thoughts here are, as well.  At least to a opera-novice chump like me.
  • "The orchestration was such that it was often meant to contrast with Zajick’s particular voice.  I think this was lost with a soprano voice in the lead.  Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who is popular locally and was the cover for Zajick, will sing the role on October 1 and 4.  I do not know her voice well enough to envision it in this opera, but I look forward to hearing what operagoers here have to say about how it sounded in this music."  Ooh!  I actually don't know yet if I have any reviews of Cook's performances in my archives; if I do not, I will have to try to seek them out, if any exist.
  • "This leads to a further question: Did the circumstances surrounding the premiere of Dolores Claiborne change the way it will be performed in the future productions it deserves?  By that I mean, will it be cast for a Dolora Zajick-type voice (Stephanie Blythe comes to mind, and she would be fantastic) or will it be seen as a role for sopranos too?  My feelings are still mixed on this.  It is a great part.  Its creators refer to it as an American Tosca, which is a bit of a stretch because Tosca has innate glamor while Dolores is lumpenproletariat.  But the range of emotions and challenges she faces certainly rival those of Puccini’s heroine."  This struck me intially as perhaps a dig at the source material (King), but I believe Plotkin is referring to the character herself.
  • "Opera history is full of momentous premieres whose circumstances forever affected a work’s survival and acceptance.  Verdi’s La Traviata survived a disastrous opening with a miscast soprano.  Others were not so fortunate because the prevailing opinions did not understand the worthiness of the operas.  Dolores Claiborne will always have an asterisk and a question mark attached to it.  I hope that it will find, in future performances, audiences who respond to special singers, whatever their vocal categories, who give it voice."  So Plotkin's belief seems to be that the opera is likely to live beyond this brief run, and that it deserves to.  Not quite a review, but generally positive, I'd say.

Up next, an interview with Racette conducted by KPIX, the CBS affiliate for the San Francisco area.  We won't go through the whole thing, but there are a few quotes from her regarding the role:

  • "I took as thorough a look at the score as I could, and it’s fiendishly difficult.  But I’m a quick study, and I thought, gosh, it’ll be to the wire, but I think I can do this if I just pull one of my turbo-sessions."  Based on the reviews, Racette seems to me like a high performer, and high performers tend to not only do well when presented with challenges like this, but look forward to them.
  • "This rather salty, sort of sour character is certainly a departure from the typical repertoire that I play."
  • "I actually had the gall to be human and have a horrible allergy attack" just before the dress rehearsal.  Lucky her!

In a no-longer-online review for the Bay Area Reporter, Philip Campbell has an anecdote which stood out to me:

"From the very get-go, there have been skeptics and detractors, starting with the choice of Stephen King for a source.  After the string of lukewarm receptions given Gockley's previous commissions (some downright duds), could this latest venture from a bestselling but decidedly sensational popular author possibly succeed with the, how shall we say, slightly more highbrow opera crowd?  Putting on a new opera isn't cheap, either.  At least King (who reportedly has shown little or no interest in the project) gave the rights at auction for only one dollar."

A bit later, we get a partial (albeit anecdotal) answer to Cambpell's question: "I asked another audience member on opening night whether he had read the book, and he took my curiosity as an insult.  'Do I look like I would read Stephen King?' he hissed.  Considering his sales figures, I thought the author's demographic was pretty broad, and I confess to admiring the tour de force first-person narrative of Dolores Claiborne the novel."  Ouch; good for Campbell, but still: ouch.

More from Campbell: "The feminist implications of the plot are boldly portrayed with words and music that move swiftly, with strong, agitated, sometimes overwhelmingly poignant effect. Ironically, there would be more subtlety to the title role had her wise-ass humor and vulgarity been given more prominence.  Oh yeah, you probably won't be hearing the f-word, or bitch, or ass-wipe again anytime soon in the opera house, but McClatchy has reduced this incarnation of Dolores to basically two modes of expression: anger and self-pity.  Racette is aces in the victim department, and she is one furious mama in the violent episodes with her monstrous, child-molesting husband Joe St. George (a real star-turn from bass-baritone Wayne Tigges), but she isn't allowed the added complexity of character a few laughs might have provided."

Mark Swed, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, leads off with some King-centric content:

"A Stephen King opera had to happen.  Many of his 56 novels have been made into movies and have spent time on bestseller lists, making King a king of pop culture accessibility — just what the opera world lusts after these days.  Moreover, Maine's master of the supernatural is also fast rising in the ranks of literary respectability.  On my way to see Tobias Picker's new opera based on Dolores Claiborne at San Francisco Opera on Wednesday night, I stopped off at University Press Books in Berkeley.  Prominently displayed amid the latest arcane studies in critical theory and scientific discovery was King's new novel, Doctor Sleep.

Samuel Beckett should be so lucky.  The four volumes of his collected works newly issued in paperback were hidden behind the sequel to The Shining.
  
Picker's Dolores Claiborne is, however, not very King-like.  The 1992 novel is one of the novelist's rare forays into realistic fiction, but King himself has had nothing to do with the opera and has demonstrated little interest in it.  He approved Picker's theatrical approach and signed over the rights for $1, but he did not attend the premiere last week.
  
Nor has King been magic at the box office.  The performance Wednesday was the third of six, and the War Memorial Opera House was not full, despite the ready approachability of the work."

Hmm; interesting.  That's two successive pieces to mention King's alleged disinterest.  Does that reek to you of somebody associated with the production walking around whispering don't-quote-me-on-this-but type grousings about King's alleged disinterest?  Yeah, to me too.

Swed gives his succinct opinion over the course of three consecutive sentences: "Picker's score, the best of his five operas, is imaginatively moody.  James Robinson's production, with effective projections as backdrops, never confuses the issue.  The singers are outstanding."

And one last bit: "It is in Picker's writing for the orchestra, vividly conducted by George Manahan, where" [the atmosphere] "takes on a life of its own.  The bass instruments growl like an angry, impotent drunk.  The high strings whistle like a mean-spirited wind.  Rippling inner voices become ineffably haunting sounds."

Hey!  Now we come to the one and only review I have found of one of Catherine Cook's performances, which I shall lead off with a cool photo of her in the role:


That's pretty great.



In a review for SFGate.com, Joshua Kosman allows the following:

  • "With her brow fiercely furrowed and her chin jutted forth in steely determination, Catherine Cook embodies the fearless resilience of the title character in Tobias Picker's new opera, Dolores Claiborne.  Tuesday's fine performance at the War Memorial Opera House located a vein of toughness in the role that crystallized much of the drama in this San Francisco Opera commission."
  • "Cook - who was Zajick's understudy and has learned the part deeply - can't quite match Racette's transparent vocal lyricism.  But she brought to the performance her own panoply of artistic gifts.  Chief among these was the theatrical vividness that has made her a regular and welcome presence at the War Memorial for more than two decades.  In Cook's account, Dolores - a working woman with only her own internal resources to draw on in the struggle against the world and her abusive husband - became a figure of stolid, immovable grace.  In her face-offs with the menacingly rich-voiced bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, Cook gave a sense of the inner strength that enabled Dolores to stand up to her husband's cruelty.  And her scenes with her daughter Selena (the bright-toned soprano Susannah Biller) were full of sympathy and tenderness."
  • "Dolores' big Act 1 aria, a moment of nostalgic reflection as she rides the ferry with Selena, didn't sound as simple or alluring as it had in Racette's account.  Yet as Dolores' emotional travails grew deeper over the course of Act 2, Cook let the audience experience her plight in singing of vibrant color and communicative power.  And in the opera's final moments - a sudden surge of serenity and resignation shot through with courage - Cook's performance rose to wonderfully expressive heights."

All of which intrigues me.  Y'know, it was bad enough when I just wanted to hear/see the goddamn thing in general; now I've educated myself just enough that I would like to see one of Racette's performances AND one of Cook's!

I'll take what I can get, though, and what I can get is this:










I'd watched these before, back in 2013 when they were posted (September 17 and 20, respectively, both by the San Francisco Opera's channel).  But I watched them cold, with no notion of any of the history.  Watching again now, I have to confess to being resistant to a lot of it, but also quite intrigued; there are (especially in the trailer) moments in which the acting looks really good, and the production itself looks solid, especially the eclipse material.

The first video throws me a bit since I'm having to mentally replace the digital music with a full orchestra; but the farther into it I get each time, the more intriguing the music sounds.  And that's a fun archival piece to watch, regardless of any other considerations.

Is there anything else for us to examine?

You bet!

In an interview with the digital magazine I Care If You Listen in July of 2014, Picker had some additional thoughts:

  • "Dolores Claiborne is unique in Stephen King’s oeuvre because it’s a true psychological drama—the kind that I’m especially attracted to.  It has murder and suicide, and the mandatory love triangle, though it’s between the three women.  There is nothing supernatural and there is nothing that one associates inherently with Stephen King.  Unless you understand that first and foremost King is a great writer, you would never think he wrote Dolores Claiborne, it is a very great story and very masterfully told.  The Shining is much more typical of Stephen King’s work because it does involve the supernatural and obscene brutality and cruelty that Dolores Claiborne does not.  Dolores Claiborne was, in many ways, a very compelling movie but by no means a masterpiece, so I felt there was room for an opera to do something with the story— to elevate it, to make it better.  Whereas Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece and a very iconic Stephen King film.  I would imagine, that those factors present a whole new challenge in recreating that story for the operatic stage and so it was one among many Stephen King stories that I rejected."  Okay, well ... about that.  I'm not sure you'd be able to actually claim that was his ONLY true psychological drama even circa 1992; what's Gerald's Game, chopped liver?  Plus: psst, guys, there are supernatural elements in Dolores Claiborne.  They're there!  Trust me!  Still, Picker is obviously respectful of King and the novel, so that's cool.
  • "Interestingly, one thing that was not particularly challenging was obtaining the rights for Dolores Claiborne from Stephen King because his then-attorney Jay Kramer was just so supportive of my making an opera out of a Stephen King novel.  But Stephen King himself was never part of the creative process and had no association with San Francisco Opera’s production, San Francisco Opera, or the creative team — and he never saw it.  Oddly, it was rather like working with a dead author.  With Emmeline, the author Judith Rossner was alive.  She looked at the libretto, she took notes, she came to rehearsals, and she came to Santa Fe.  She was very interested and engaged by this foreign art form reinventing her novel, whereas King wished to have no input whatsoever except to approve the libretto once finished.  And, he certainly had no interest in seeing the opera version of his book.  But, I was very happy that the marvelous actor who played Joe Saint George, David Strathairn took a strong interest in my opera and flew across the country to attend the premiere."  Is it my imagination, or does Picker sound butthurt about King's lack of involvement?  Shit-fire, dude, King describes himself as a hick; you want him to suddenly be able to give notes on the opera-writing process?  I get it, though; I suspect that if King had thrown his support behind the opera in even a small way, it would have been exponentially beneficial.  So in some ways, I think I'm Team Tobias on this one.

Next up, one of the more intriguing pieces: an article from the website of WRTI (Philadelphia) that seems to definitively state that on October 11, 2014, the opera was broadcast at 1 PM.  This means it's possible some kindly soul out there recorded the stream as it aired, and archived it for their own purposes.  To that kindly soul I would say this: that tickle you're feeling in the back of your mind is an urge to share that file with me.  Give in to that impulse!  It doesn't do you any good to deny yourself such a simple pleasure!  You WANT to share it with me; you NEED to share it with me.  I'm happy to help in any way I can.

That article also has a relatively detailed plot synopsis, which I shall share with you all now:

ACT I
   
Winter 1992: The grand staircase of Vera Donovan’s manor house on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine.  Vera lies at the bottom of the stairs.  Dolores Claiborne, her maid and housekeeper for forty years, is standing with an object raised over Vera.  A young woman enters and screams, “Mother!”
  
The next day: The interrogation room of the local police station.  Detective Thibodeau questions Dolores about Vera’s death.  Dolores confesses that she hated Vera but denies murdering her.  During the questioning, Dolores reveals details about her life of servitude, her dead husband and estranged daughter, and her relationship with Vera.
  
Spring 1950: Vera’s estate.  The newly-hired Dolores helps the other maids, learning what it takes to please her new boss. V era watches the girls, scolding and mocking them, and she asks Dolores about her life.
  
Fall 1962: Dolores’s run-down house.  Dolores’s husband, Joe St. George, is looking for a hidden bottle of whiskey and broods about the frustrations in his life.  Their daughter, fifteen-year-old Selena, returns home from school.  Joe begs for her affection, but she runs from the room as Dolores returns home from work.  When Joe bends over to find his bottle, she laughs at his split britches; he viciously lashes out at her.  Dolores staggers to her feet and strikes back at Joe.  A violent argument ensues as Selena watches.
  
Winter 1963: The deck of the Little Tall Island ferry.  Selena is sitting on a bench, when Dolores unexpectedly appears.  Dolores tries to discover why her daughter has been so sullen and distant with her.  Selena pushes her mother away but Dolores demands to know the truth, which she understands after Selena dissolves into tears.
  
Winter 1992: The interrogation room.  Thibodeau is determined to force Dolores to confess to Vera’s murder, but Dolores will only speak of how miserable Vera was in her last years.
  
Spring 1963: The local bank.  Determined to save her daughter and escape from her abusive husband, Dolores demands the money she has been saving.  The manager, Mr. Pease, explains that Joe has recently withdrawn all of her money.  She bullies Pease into showing her Joe’s new account, and she vows to get the money back.
  
July 4, 1963: The annual lawn party at Vera’s estate.  Maids scurry around with drinks and canapés while the hostess circulates.  Dolores drops a tray of drinks and is scolded by Vera.  Dolores breaks down in tears and Vera tries to comfort her.  Dolores confides that her husband has been beating her and, worse, he has stolen all of her money.  Vera recalls her own marriage and reminds Dolores that “accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”  She also informs Dolores that a full solar eclipse is happening very soon—a darkness during which anything might happen.  Dolores tells Vera that something even worse has happened at home, where we now see Joe sitting alone with Selena, molesting her.
  
ACT II
  
July 20, 1963: The day of the solar eclipse.  Selena and Joe come out of the house playing with eclipse-viewing boxes.  Selena goes off, and Dolores treats Joe to whiskey and sandwiches.  The day begins to darken, and Dolores accuses Joe of molesting Selena; he responds violently.  She tells him that she has taken back the money he stole.  Joe demands to know where it is and Dolores says she has hidden it in the woods.  The sky blackens and Dolores leads Joe into the trap she has laid—an abandoned well.
  
The same day.  In the dark, Selena is alone.  She wonders about the stars coming out in the middle of the day and expresses feelings of something not right in her life.
  
Several days later: The wooded area behind Dolores’s house.  Townsmen are removing Joe’s body from the abandoned well, and Dolores identifies the body.  Selena runs in demanding to know what happened to her father.  Dolores tells her she will now be safe, but Selena only responds with anger and rushes off.
  
Winter, 1992: The interrogation room.  Thibodeau is losing patience with Dolores and tells her that everyone knows she killed her husband.
  
A few days earlier: Vera’s bedroom and Selena’s Boston apartment.  Now aged and senile, Vera begins to hallucinate about her dead husband, and Dolores comforts her.  Meanwhile, alone in her apartment Selena voices her anger over not hearing from her mother on her birthday and decides to go to Maine.
  
A few days later: The interrogation room.  Thibodeau continues to question Dolores when Selena enters.  Acting as her mother’s attorney, Selena demands the interrogation end at once.  Thibodeau produces a file providing proof of Dolores’s guilt: Vera’s will.  She has left everything to Dolores.  Selena notes the document is seven years old.  It is merely evidence of the fondness the two women had for each other.  Dolores says she doesn’t want the money; Selena demands that the charges be dropped and the two women leave.
  
The next day: Dolores’s abandoned home.  Selena teases her mother about giving all of Vera’s money to an orphanage and mocks Dolores for a life that has added up to nothing.  Dolores tells her that all she did was so that Selena could have a better life.  Selena asks her about what really happened the night Vera died.

In Vera’s bedroom that final night, Dolores brings Vera her dinner.  Vera makes a shocking confession and a desperate plea, and we see the events as they unfolded that fateful night.
          
As the memory fades back to the present, mother and daughter try to come to terms with their relationship.  In the end, Selena walks out and Dolores is left alone.

A few interesting things to note there:

  • Having it be Selena who discovers Dolores in what seems to be the act of killing Vera is a little nonsensical.  Why is she there?  Granted, I'm imposing the movie's logic on the opera, and they need not be similar; but still, that seems odd.  That said, I kind of get it.  Compressing plotlines and characters can be crucial in adaptation, and that's clearly what is going on here.
  • It seems here as if Selena is being molested -- or, at the very least harassed -- even before Dolores cracks the pitcher of cream over Joe's head.  That's a major change, and since it is, again, seemingly designed so as to compress things, I can live with it.
  • How would one suddenly appear beside one on a ferry?  Was Dolores hiding the whole time?  I guess that's plausible.  This is the sort of shortcut one must take in a stage production, though; one lacks the benefit of editing for time-compression.
  • Some of Vera's hallucinations are incorporated here, which is cool.
  • Selena serving as her mother's attorney works reasonably well, I suppose.  However, I don't know how wild I am about the scene in which Selena teases and mocks her mother.
  • It seems to me as if the opera, like the movie, ends with a near-complete lack of emotional catharsis.  Hard to say without the benefit of hearing what I assume to be the closing aria, if that's the word I'm looking for; what I mean to say is, I can't be sure, but it sounds as if the whole thing kind of just staggers to a close, not unlike the movie.  I don't think the novel is guilty of that at all; it's interesting that the opera took more cues from the movie in this regard than from the book.

That gets us pretty close to being done, but there is one more significant thing to cover: the fact that the opera was performed on October 22-29 by the New York City Opera company under director Michael Capasso and conductor Pacien Mazzagatti.




The title role was played by Lisa Chavez (a mezzo):




Other roles were filled by Jessica Tyler Wright (Vera), Lianne Gennaco (Selena), Thomas Hall (Joe), and Spencer Hamlin (Detective Thibodeau).

Here are a few tidbits from various reviews:

  • "J. D. McClatchy’s libretto is a heady mix of the plain and the poetic: while much of the text is laced with profanity, at times it reaches towards a powerful image, as when Dolores, just before the eclipse, observes that 'God’s gonna shut his eye' during the murder.  The roughness of the language is a strong defining element in her character, even if Picker’s decisions about the setting are at times a bit odd: for instance, 'bitch,' perhaps the most frequent word in the libretto, has a percussive force when spoken in conversation, but Picker chooses to set it on a held note more often than not."  (NewYorkClassicalReview.com)
  • "There is a good deal of darkness in Picker’s score, as is to be expected given the subject.  Act I opens with a dramatic sting of winds and strings, like something out of a noir thriller, placing us right in the cold sweat of the precinct station interview.  In anxious scenes like this, Picker falls back on a palette of jarring, bristling discord that is effective at creating atmosphere but grows wearisome in large doses; he shows a particular fascination, too, with shrieking high notes, making the female vocal parts murderously punishing on the performers.  Picker has a strong ear, though, for striking effects: in a particularly moving scene in the first act, a deep pulse of bassoon and strings evokes the melancholy lapping of the waves against the side of the ferry on which Dolores and Selena are passengers.  As their exchange becomes more and more fraught with emotion, the pattern seems to suggest an insistent heartbeat, or troubled sighs.  At times, Picker surprises the listener by launching into something approaching a full-bodied romanticism, offering up tender melody over a rich bed of strings."  (NewYorkClassicalReview.com)
  • "Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez led the cast with a brilliant performance in the title role.  Hers is not a voice of especially rich color, but it is a spacious instrument, and flows easily through the part’s many lyrical lamentations."  (NewYorkClassicalReview.com)
  • "Every bit as engaging, though of an entirely different mould, was Jessica Tyler Wright as Vera.  She showed a bright, sharp soprano, and gave a portrayal dripping with self-regard, a picture-perfect suburban martinet.  Wright dazzled with her tripping arpeggios in her deliciously glib Act I aria, instructing Dolores that 'accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.'  The force of her personality makes her eventual decay into a loveless old invalid, imprisoned in her wheelchair, breathtakingly poignant."  (NewYorkClassicalReview.com)
  • "Lianne Gennaco was excellent as Selena, another character with a wide arc.  The victim of Joe’s worst abuses, she has few chances to find joy in her childhood, save one remarkable aria in Act II, expressing her wonder at the eclipse in bright, tender tone while her father lies dying in the well.  Later, a grown woman and a successful Boston lawyer, she has a very different sort of scene, expressing her fundamental, existential dissatisfaction through hard-edged music."  (NewYorkClassicalReview.com)
  • "A new production of Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, adapted from Stephen King’s psychological thriller, opened last Sunday in 'a scaled-down version for use in smaller venues,' commissioned and produced by New York City Opera, at 59E59’s Theater A.  Shorn of its chorus and several secondary roles, its orchestra reduced from 70 to 14, and played in a black-box venue with a seating-capacity of 195, Dolores Claiborne certainly takes on an 'eerie intimacy,' as noted by its librettist, the poet J.D. McClatchy.  But that intimacy comes at considerable cost, both dramatically and musically."  (zealnyc.com)
  • "One brilliant invention survived intact from the original version and it ought to have been overwhelming in view of the news from Hollywood in the last few weeks.  The drunken lout previously mentioned habitually cloaks his sexual aggressions in a quiet, teasing little singsong—'Papa goes up, Papa goes down, Papa goes into the well'—that functions at once as a nursery-rhyme, a grooming-device, a moral anesthetic, an appallingly precise metaphor for what he is doing to his victim, and an unconscious prefiguring of what will ultimately happen to him.  Sung full-out, as it was here, it had none of the insinuating, creepy blandishment that McClatchy and Picker wrote.  If you knew what was going to happen, it merely foreshadowed, and that bluntly; if you didn’t, you could only wonder why anyone would stay in the room with this man for even two seconds, under any circumstances, let alone defend him."  (zealnyc.com)
  • "Theatre A seats 196 and is steeply raked. From the top, you look down at the stage, but in the brilliant conception of John Farrell, you look directly at a balcony where a ferry deck plows through the sea, and at laundry wafting in the breeze and trees waving as an eclipse starts."   (BerkshireFineArts.com)
  • "In one of those superb Farrell touches, we first meet her being interrogated for the murder of her employer.  We can see her reactions up close as she is photographed on stage and projected large onto the wall behind the stage right platform area.  The set is rich in detail.  From the worn white walls on the exterior of Dolores and Joe's less than modest home, to the tall bay windows framed in honey-gold wood with glass subtly stained, the worlds of the poor and the rich are created."  (BerkshireFineArts.com)
  • "Lisa Chavez as Dolores is on stage throughout the opera, and has to handle the physical demands of dispatching her husband with tense music that conveys both her growing resolution and desperation.  Chavez, quite simply, thrills — and that is in the company of two other stunning voices.  Lianne Gennaco as the daughter, Selena, carried off the demands as young daughter and also successful adult lawyer.  Her Act two scenes with Dolores were beautifully sung.  Many times I sensed that people wanted to burst into applause at such moments.  But the tone, mood and pace of the story held everyone rapt.  And continuing the excess of vocal riches, Jessica Tyler Wright conveys the two aspects of the wealthy Vera Donavan, a forceful woman of wealth turned old."  (OperaWire.com)
  • " 'Shabby little shocker,' a pundit once labeled Puccini’s Tosca.  Like that work, this Dolores Claiborne is certainly a shocker.  And I might suggest that if Puccini had put out his cigarette, and wandered into the theater, for him, whose works were all about the drama, the music, and the voices, I’m sure he’d approve."  (OperaWire.com)

A few photos, howsabout:







*****

Well, folks, that's pretty much the end of that, at least until some further development strikes.  My current (and admittedly on semi-informed) opinion is that this opera is a significant work, one which has flaws but is nevertheless an above-average example of its medium.

If so, that makes it a thing I continue to feel deprived of as a King fan.  And who knows?  This really could be my gateway into the world of opera.

I'd love for somebody to eventually make this work commercially available.  My preferred format?  Glad you asked: that'd be a Blu-ray set with at least two performances on it, plus companion CDs and a nice photo collection.

If that's too much to ask, I'll take literally anything I can get.  Streaming?  Fine.  CD only?  Fine.  MP3s?  Fine.

Beggars cannot be choosers, and I'm begging: put the freakin' thing into the world in a more tangible form than it currently exists, please and thank you.

There's one more post yet to come in our Dolores Claiborne explorations: one devoted to the score by Danny Elfman to the movie adaptation.  I have not yet quite decided what format to take with that: I'm leaning toward a straightforward review of the soundtrack album, but I'm also tempted by the idea of doing another full watchthrough of the movie and doing a scene-by-scene breakdown of the score as used in the film (with a review/comparison of the soundtrack album appended to it).

Not sure which way I will go.  If you've got an opinion on that, feel free to cast your vote in the comments.

8 comments:

  1. (1) "I do this; I keep archives of all sorts of King-related articles, and every time a new one gets in front of my eyes, I add to the collection." I love this. I'm not as disciplined about this as I should be, but I aspire to this.

    (2) Re: libretto/composer. The comparison you chose is accurate. I'd add that the composer probably also has an executive-producer credit (with varying degrees of worth re: whomever's bankrolling things). I should go back and start this over: I have no idea if this is true of modern opera composer/libretto relationships, but that's how it seems to me from looking at the repertoire of the past. Wagner, of course, wrote his own libretti, none of which are particularly celebrated on their own strength, but uniquely suited to the music he wrote. He's an exception, though (in many areas). All in all, my personal reckoning seems to be, the opera is better if the composer has the final say in all things, and if the librettist understands (and reveres) the composer. That combination produces (to my ears and eyes) the best result.

    (3) "I wonder where that sort of guiding hand was when it came to some of the movie and television adaptations." Yeah... I mean, does it seem really flipping weird that this is the case? He's got it kind of backwards, I'd say. (I imagine he saves his strictest approval for any ballet or interpretive dance based on his work.) UNLESS he's secretly a huge opera fan. That would have come out by now, though.

    (4) I keep thinking this Picker guy is Mandy Patinkin. I'm just going to go right ahead and believe that to be the case for the rest of the post.

    (5) "So the slobs among us with an unapologetic taste for pulp fiction were encouraged when San Francisco Opera announced a few seasons ago..." I love this. And history always repeats himself. One of the more famous operas (Pagliacci) was pulp fiction in its time and was derided as such during most of its initial popularity. Opera has gone to pulp fiction many times - hell, King is classing up the joint, in many ways. (Though he's right at home in the traditional wheelhouse of incest, murder, strong female agency, fate/ka, and vengeance.)

    (6) Holy shit on that almost-happened with Placido Domingo! I've been listening to LOHENGRIN with Placido in the heroic-tenor title role. How cool he was almost involved with something like this, and how sad it never happened.

    (7) Cool stage design. How crazy you can't watch this damn thing. I'll never understand you, world.

    (8) ""Opera"tion. Get it? GET IT?!? Ahem...sorry." I want to do a series on a spaghetti western sort of character named Spaghetti Libretti. It's ridiculous, but hey, while we're here.

    (8.5) And also while we're here, to answer this question to me: I'll answer this in two parts. (1) Any opera performance is impressive! I have no idea how anyone actually does this stuff. As for the transformation: (2) Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but I'd say it'd be comparable to being an actor in 2 different plays in the same night. The singing is one thing, but to become a character depends on the actor. For some it's probably more effortless than others. And probably for a variety of reasons, to boot. At any rate, she certainly sounds awesome.

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    1. (1) It's rewarding for a fella like me, but I've got to say, it can be time-consuming, especially any time there's a big press blitz around a new movie or tv show. And holy moly is Google Alerts an invaluable resource in this regard.

      (2) This makes sense to me. In more or less all artistic collaborations, there seemingly HAS to be someone guiding the process. (Or possibly two or three someones working in relative lockstep.) Since it's the music that is the important aspect of opera, it'd be kind of foolish for the librettist to hold sway over everything. I wonder; has that ever happened and resulted in a great work?

      (3) It seems unlikely to me that King has ever seen an opera. I could be wrong, of course. But I think he missed an opportunity to truly ingratiate himself among a never-before-tapped community in not throwing his weight behind this opera, I suspect. I betcha his stock would have risen among the cultural elite by a notch or two.

      (4) I bet he's told somebody to prepare to die, so it's close enough for me to allow it.

      (5) You always hear the old jazz about how both Shakespeare and Dickens were considered to be low-rent in their day. And heck, I guess it's even true. It makes sense that there would be a deep strain of conservativism running through opera circles that made it difficult for "new" types of material to get in. But it always gets in, eventually; and it would not surprise me in the least if a King-based opera eventually cracked that code. With my limited imagination for the form, I'm tentatively going to say that "11/22/63" would make a great one.

      (6) I could barely believe that when I read it. Finding out a fact like that was a satisfying reason for even doing this post at all. (There were many such reasons, though; I enjoyed writing this one quite a bit.)

      (8) It's ridiculous and I approve of it completely.

      (8.5) This matches up with my assumptions, which pleases me.

      Delete
  2. (9) Re: San Fran vs. New York: it's all relative. But, in our lifetime at least, and perhaps we'll be alive to see this change if it hasn't already, the Sinatra song probably still is true. You've got to make it there to "make it."

    (10) Bring on that opera crossover! I'm down. (This has been this week's object of study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEBq-gsdI58 But I have a quick 2 day work trip tomorrow and Thursday and will be taking a break from opera and diving into a Beethoven's Symphonies lecture series. Probably a lot of the same ground - I only mention all of this because I get so damn into this stuff I can't help it. But it has nothing to do with the matter at hand so rein it in McMolo.)

    (11) Re: Janacek - you will likely recognize either the "Sinfonietta" itself or hear within it its influence on so many movie scores: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbncXDimwbQ Hell, with your soundtrack collection, you're probably way ahead of me here. This and Holst's "The Planets" show up in disguise in so many places.

    (12) I think about that language-opera thing an awful lot. German (English's closest relative) opera solved the problem by making everything five times as goddamn long and stressing out every syllable. It does have a musical resonance, doing it this way, but (like that Gilbert and Sullivan link I sent you) it's not the only way. It's a formidable problem, though - how easy it must be to write operas in Italian! But, sooner or later, every language that wants to will conquer this mountain. I know so little about American operas - so many paths of inquriy in the reviews in this post, I've got lots to look up.

    (13) "That's true of the movie, too; it's interesting to consider that this opera may have mostly ignored the movie only to replicate one of its biggest problems. " Very true! And interesting. A good observation on both your and the reviewer's parts.

    (14) "Part of the trouble may be the grand-opera model itself. Dolores Claiborne feels at its core like a monodrama or chamber work. It’s an intimate tale that has been stretched to fill an evening-length two-act structure and a 3,000-seat hall — and it’s not the only recent American opera that has felt similar strain. Stories, just like voices, come in different sizes." Well... I mean, everyone has their opinion. It's probably a good point: grand opera (like CARMEN, for example) has some thematic overlap with DOLORES but maybe he's right. But, not having seen or heard it, who knows?

    (15) Red hot and supple! Nice.

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    1. (9) Doesn't it seem a bit as if the internet ought to theoretically be able to change that? I mean, call me crazy, but it seems as if a truly enterprising opera company could find a permanent venue more or less anywhere and support itself by launching a subscription-based streaming service. What major opera fan -- and obviously they exist in relatively large numbers, still -- would not support such a service? You could theoretically do that just about anywhere. I mean, maybe not in Tuscaloosa; but then again, who knows?

      (10) That Mussorgsky piece is awesome. I'd never heard it, but it confirms my suspicion that I would be into Mussorgsky. (And I love Beethoven's symphonies; it's been too long since I listened to them all.)

      (11) To the best of my knowledege, I've never heard this, but it does indeed sound like it can't help but have been a major influence on people like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa and John Williams. It's pretty great; I'm sure I've heard its musical children, as it were. (This bit beginning around the twelve minutes mark is incredible.)

      (12) It's a genuinely fascinating topic. As soon as you raised it with me, something clicked into place; I felt like I understood opera twice as well after that as I had before. Still utterly novice, but now a novice armed with a bit of information that he could build upon. I like that I can still learn things from time to time.

      (13) What really fascinates me there is that Picker and McClatchy probably did THINK they'd successfully ignored the movie. After all, the novel is -- like a surprising amount of King's work (especially given how frequently people claim he's "cinematic") -- very much a work that takes advantage of the prose format. King writes like a writer; it's why so many of the adaptations have failed outright or have been mediocre. The good ones take enough to build their own thing on, and then concentrate on building that thing. So it's entirely possible that an operatic adaptation and a film adaptation could have independently reached some (or all) of the same conclusions about how to go about doing their thing. Including making the same mistakes. That'd be (in a weird way) pretty cool, if that were actually the case.

      (14) Reading that now, I find myself thinking that taking an "intimate" tale like this and turning it into a grand opera might well inherently MAKE the material grand by encouraging the audience to focus on why it had been given that treatment. I can't speak for the opera, but having read the novel very recently, I'd have to say that while it is relatively grounded and plain in some respects, it's also got an incredible sweep to it. The way in which Dolores mentally dances back and forth is stunning at times; King's ability to use her as a vehicle to transport us from youth to old age, from vitality to senility, within the span of a single sentence is ... well, maybe Harold Bloom would have better examples, but me? I find it to be fairly awesome.

      Or, one might say, "grand."

      (15) Damn. That's why people hate sopranos sometimes, isn't it?

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  3. (16) "...in pretending to be, it cheapens itself. " This is a preoccupation of mine: the poseur as human condition. It's why all those truth-in-art screeds strike a chord in your heart. Be honest in all things - especially with yourself, as much as you can and don't feel you have to fucking blab about it on facebook either - as much as possible, in art and life.

    (17) That Plotkin review is great. (I've come across that guy before, too - I've got something bookmarked by him but cannot find it.)

    (18) Okay finally, some of the opera itself at the end! Thoughts: I think I agree with the reviewer who wrote the word-rhythms aren't quite right. But, I'll reserve comment until I can actually hear the whole thing. Bits of it sound quite good, but again, who knows! Snippets can be deceiving, and opera is a greater-than-its-parts(and-many-many-parts) experience. The bits with the maids, for example, the music sounds pretty cool, but the language kept losing me. (Never the case with Gilbert and Sullivan! The former, maybe - and probably often, but the latter: those guys had some weird ability of rendering English opera-wise.)

    (19) "Oddly, it was rather like working with a dead author. " That's very interesting. But yeah, and I mean that's why it's so weird he has the opera-clause in his adaptation contracts: I mean, does King exhibit the signs of anyone interested in opera, really?

    (20) The New York edition looks a bit chinsier, stage production wise.

    (21) Agreed: a 2-disc blu-ray would be eagerly purchased by me!

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    1. (16) It's increasingly a preoccupation of mine, as well. And to some degree, we're probably all poseurs; that whole fake-it-til-you-make-it thing is pretty real. But if you ain't got it, you ain't got it, and eventually it becomes evident to all but the most tone-deaf.

      (17) I had a feeling he might be a known quantity to you in some way; that bio seemed pretty confident about him being a notable figure in the critical world, and so it makes sense that you'd have encountered his work in some way.

      (18) "Snippets can be deceiving, and opera is a greater-than-its-parts(and-many-many-parts) experience." That makes sense. Interestingly, I found myself immediately responding to the bit with the maids; but I could not understand WORD ONE of what they were singing. I only minded a bit.

      (19) In this case, it's probably just that Picker had never worked with anyone who did not take an active interest in the project. I can see how he might take it personally, certainly if it was anew experience. But it does 100% speak to me of someone who knew virtually nothing about King himself. Because as you say, why would anyone have expected King to show up with thoughts about phrasing in the arias? Don't kid yourself, kid.

      (20) I didn't mention it, but there was a quote from Picker somewhere mentioning that the production itself had been scaled down for a more intimate version. I took this to mean that it was a version deemed possible on a much smaller budget. And hey, why not? I can't blame them for just wanting to have the damn thing show somewhere/anywhere.

      (21) Are there Blu-rays of operas? I know there are some of Broadway shows here and there, but opera, I don't know.

      If not, what a missed opportunity. Although (as mentioned earlier) I suspect that streaming is now where the actual money would be. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that money is just lying around waiting to be scooped up. Get to scooping, y'all!

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    2. I lack the time this morning to reply as thoroughly as I like, but I quite like the idea of a Virtual Opera House, or a Netflix-for-Opera. I would imagine if the numbers can sustain ACTUAL opera houses, some variation / combo/ magic formula exists for it to be sustainable via the internet.

      Just watch out for the Final Five Cylons - they're season-ticket holders and always glaring down from that balcony all glowing and ominous.

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