by Rodney Punt
The historic path to equality for gays and lesbians is strewn with victims of injustice. One of the most egregious examples was that of Oscar Wilde, the sparkling genius of late Victorian English theater, whose career was initially charmed but later cursed by the sexual phobias of the time. The Irish playwright was a brave, some would also say foolhardy, soul who flaunted his indiscriminately brilliant wit in plays of multi-dimensional sub-text that have never lost their luster with audiences. He paid, however, a steep price for that flamboyance in his private life.
As Americans eagerly await Supreme Court decisions on the right of gays and lesbians to marry, the Santa Fe Opera brings Wilde's relevant and tragic story to the stage in Oscar, a new opera by Theodore Morrison, based on the trial and imprisonment of the playwright for actions related to his sexual orientation. It will receive its world premiere as a highlight of The Santa Fe Opera 2013 Summer Festival Season. The title role will be sung by countertenor David Daniels for whom the opera was written. The libretto is by the British director John Cox.
Morrison had wanted to write an opera for Daniels and the opportunity presented itself in London in 2004 when the countertenor was performing a song cycle on the poems of James Joyce that Morrison had written for him. John Cox was at the recital and upon meeting the composer suggested that he should write an opera. Conversations between the three men ensued and in 2006 the subject of Oscar Wilde was decided upon.
As Act I begins, Oscar Wilde, London’s most famous writer and biggest celebrity, has been charged by the court of “gross indecency with other male persons,” a result of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. In disgrace, Wilde becomes an outcast in society without friends or a place to live. He takes refuge in the nursery apartment at the home of a friend, the English writer Ada Leverson. Frank Harris, the brilliant editor of the Saturday Review, also a friend, brings Ada news of the verdict. Wilde is found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor.
Act II takes place in Reading Gaol. The prisoners, subjected to the harshest conditions, are confined to dismal cells and kept separate from one another. Wilde is denied paper for writing and books to read. He becomes gravely ill, and it is while he is in the infirmary that he hears his fellow inmates’ stories and his compassion grows. The result is Wilde’s famous The Ballad of Reading Gaol, sections of which are included in the opera. “We present Oscar Wilde as hero, not as victim,” commented Morrison. “His life, and all he stood for, has great relevance today.” He became an iconic figure in the struggle for gay rights and universal human rights.
The characters in Oscar include Walt Whitman (sung by Dwayne Croft) as commentator, speaking from the Halls of Immortality. Bosie, Wilde’s great love, is portrayed by dancer Reed Luplau. Frank Harris will be sung by William Burden, Ada Leverson by Heidi Stober. Evan Rogister is the conductor, Kevin Newbury the director. David Korins is scenic designer, David Woolard costume designer, and Rick Fisher lighting designer. Seán Curran is the choreographer.
The World Premiere of Oscar will take place Saturday, July 27, followed by performances on July 31, August 9, 12 and 17. The opera is a co-production with Opera Company of Philadelphia which will perform the work in the 2015 season.
Here's an excerpt of Wilde's haunting and tragic Ballad of Reading Gaol:
In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.
And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
For tickets: SFO Box Office at (505) 986-5900; toll free (800) 280-4654, or go online at www.santafeopera.org.
Several activities are planned for the opening weekend. On Friday, July 26, Wilde experts will gather in Santa Fe to discuss his life and work. Saturday morning, the 27th, members of the Oscar creative team will be on hand to talk about the opera including Morrison, Cox, Newbury, among others. Times and venues will be announced on the Santa Fe Opera's website.