New History Operas on the Way: Monsters and Wars

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

New York City Opera VOX Lab
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
New York University
New York, N.Y.

When we think of the Opera we think of traditional productions such as Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle or Puccini’s ‘La Boheme.’ The New York City Opera, one of the nation’s most great experimental houses, does not. Right now, its producers are thinking about the monster Frankenstein and a violent early twentieth century Revolution in China.

They are the subjects of two history operas unveiled Saturday at the New York City Opera’s twelfth VOX: Contemporary American Opera Lab, a showcase for new works. The first, ‘Mary Shelley,’ is the rather dark story of the woman who wrote the classic horror novel, ‘Frankenstein,’ and the second is ‘Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,’ the story of the man behind the Xinhai Revolution in China in 1911.

They are just the latest operas about history that the VOX lab has produced since 1999. Among its more than 100 works are operas about Sacco and Vanzetti, the Apollo 14 space mission, Merlin, Julius Caesar, Marco Polo, cult minister Jim Jones and boxer Muhammad Ali.

This year, in addition to the history stories, VOX presented ‘All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed,’ about two lovers, ‘Vinkensport,’ the story of a contest involving birds and their sadistic owners, ‘The Beach,’ about the imprisonment and abuse of an elderly man based on a true story and ‘Faustine,’ a female ‘Faust.’

Audiences (the theater was at near-capacity) have the opportunity to see 40 minute or so excerpts from each opera and listen to a conversation between a classic music radio personality and many composers and librettists of the works. These new opera unveilings are workshops for, hopefully, complete productions in the future. They do get staged later, too. Forty of the 100 works the NYC Opera has produced in VOX have been staged as full operas by it or other American opera companies.

Why VOX and its new ideas?

“Opera audiences seek adventure, adventure in new and different operas, and we can offer that to them in these VOX productions,” said George Steel, NYC Opera’s General Manager and Artistic Director. “It is an exciting opportunity for us to showcase new works of opera.”

“The composers, singers, players and staff members that comprise VOX create a delicious cauldron of talent, ideas, enthusiasm and drive,” said VOX producer Beth Morrison, who also runs ‘Second Stage,’ a smaller lab of a similar nature.

She added that NYC Opera is always trying to build its audience by attracting members of “Generation Y” as calls them. “The amount of new opera works that are being written today are truly inspirational and I truly believe we are entering into another Golden Age of opera creation.”

There is a delicious irony in the way that the idea for ‘Mary Shelley’ came to librettist Deborah Atherton. “I was staying in an actual haunted house. There, I spent a lot of time reading and one of the books I finished was Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.” One night I had a dream about Shelley and her monster, woke up and told myself that was my next opera.”

She called composer Allan Jaffe and asked him to write the music. Why him?

“I love horror and had just finished an opera about vampires,” Jaffe grinned. “I always loved ‘Frankenstein’ and got wrapped up in the story of Shelley and how she wrote the novel. The music just flowed out of me.”

In ‘Mary Shelley,’ the novelist goes to Switzerland in 1816 for the summer with her new husband, poet Percy Shelley. Lord Byron visits them. One night, Byron asks house guests to think up a horror story to tell at the next dinner. That night, Mary dreamed about a doctor who created a monster. That incident about the dream of ‘Frankenstein’ started the excerpt at VOX. It was followed by the finale of the opera, when the monster and Mary sing together in her dreams and we learn how much the idea of Frankenstein’s monster had its claws into Mary. She could not let go of him and blamed him for all the woes she had in her life.

‘Frankenstein,’ published in 1818, has sold millions of books and been a great success in a number of plays and motion pictures.

The music in ‘Mary Shelley’ is very dramatic and sends a shiver through you. Everybody knows the ‘Frankenstein’ story, yet the opera gives you a new look at how it came about. It emphasizes Mary Shelley’s dark side. Early on, she sings of “the company I keep, monsters, lovers, demons, spies. All I do is close my eyes and the world of nightmare arrives.”

The end, with the Monster singing passionately to Mary, is particularly chilling.

The second history opera, ‘Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,’ about the revolutionary who tried to topple Chinese government in 1911, is entirely different. It is a large, buoyant, grand opera with a larger orchestra. They are accompanied by a chorus that sings background music. It was commissioned by the Opera Hong Kong and will debut there in October to honor the 100th anniversary of Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution..

The composer, Huang Ruo, was born in Canton Province, China, and learned much about traditional Chinese opera, and national history, from his grandmother. When asked if this an eastern or western opera by an interviewer, Ruo laughed. “It is neither. It is just a good story about history that can be presented in China or in the U.S. I actually wrote two operas, in Chinese, using the music of special Chinese instruments, and in English. This way the opera can be staged in either country with its own music.”

Librettist Candace Chong based her story on true history, of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, one of the most important figures in contemporary Chinese history. He helped to lead the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 that toppled the Qing Dynasty. Yat-Sen was elected President of the Republic of China, the new national government, in 1912. Chong went to the library as soon as she agreed to work with Ruo on ‘Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. “He was a famous figure in China, and in the world, at that time. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of books and magazines articles about him. The research on my story used all of these,” she said.

The excerpt the audience heard from the opera on Saturday was the first scene, in which friends of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen are raising money at a party to build a school. The money is really going to Sun Yat-Sen to buy weapons for the revolution, but nobody knows that. The party runs along smoothly until the charismatic Sun Yat-Sen arrives. He immediately becomes the dominant figure at the party and people flock to him.

The music in the opera is very triumphant. It heralds his work in the framework of a heroic story of a man who changed the history of his country. The NYC Opera ensemble of singers who make up the chorus do a fine job accompanying the story. The singers show a sense of fear as they tell their story, a sense of danger as they engage in their treasonous work.

‘Mary Shelley’ and ‘Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’ are two good examples of the new history works that are being written in the world of opera. They are examples, too, in literature and politics, that history comes in many shapes and sizes.

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