Monday, January 14, 2019

Shearer's and Stevens' Operatic, American 'Howards End'

Claudia Stevens, Allen Shearer
Photo David Becker

INTERVIEW: Howards End, America 

Z Space, San Francisco 

The much anticipated new opera, Howards End, America, from composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens, the creative team behind 2015's Middlemarch in Spring, will premiere in San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2019. The city’s RealOpera will co-produce with forward-looking chamber music ensemble Earplay. Mary Chun conducts and Philip Lowery directs the cast led by acclaimed singers Nikki Einfeld, Philip Skinner, and Michael Dailey. 

Exploring issues of race equality, love, and betrayal, Howards End, America updates E. M. Forster's famous novel from Edwardian England to McCarthy-era Boston. Shearer and Stevens weigh in on the opera’s compelling themes. 

Erica Miner: Claudia and Allen, congratulations on the upcoming world premiere of your major new chamber opera Howards End, America

Allen Shearer and Claudia Stevens: Thank you, Erica. 

EM: Your opera has been described as “a story of betrayal, race and real estate.” What makes this a characteristically AMERICAN opera in its flavor and meaning? 

Claudia: I come from the Sacramento Valley, but I spent formative years in Boston, where the opera is set—I was in grad school at Boston University (which gets a mention in the opera). Martin Luther King had received his Doctor of Divinity degree there. While I was soaking up the atmosphere, the idealism, the physical places in New England where American history was forged, race hatred was rearing its ugly head in South Boston and school buses carrying black children were being stoned. This made a deep impression. I then made my home for nearly thirty years in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy. Riding the buses there in the 70's I learned about the color barrier, how people still treated one another 120 years after emancipation. So, I came to understand that American attitudes and behaviors often have to do with race—much as British social structure still has to do with class barriers. The flavor of this opera, and part of its meaning, was born out of my varied experience of the nation over decades. But the opera is far more than a polemic about race. It is also a love story about deception and betrayal.

Sara Duchovnay, Michael Dailey
Allen: I would add that our characters seem typically American: the arrogant wealthy industrialist Henry and the radical young activist Helen; the African-American Leonard as a self-made man hoping to break out of his confines. The sheer energy of Leonard's embrace of high culture has a kind of pioneer spirit that we associate with America. And the character of his wife Jacky, a former night-club singer, gave me an opportunity to introduce a jazz element that plays a big role in the opera. 

EM: I look forward to hearing that jazz component, which I think works well in opera. What made you decide to tell this particular story, to adapt the classic E.M. Forster novel to an American setting? 

Claudia: I have always loved Forster. His novels are full of music and musical references, as is Howards End. I love how he tells us that position and wealth create barriers between us and in the end feelings are what matter. I also was drawn to this book by its great charm and wit, its colorful, sympathetic characters and the intensity of the story. And I saw that, by the simple choice of transforming the characters of Leonard and Jacky from working class unfortunates in England, to African-American characters in Boston a whole new dynamic would emerge. I saw pretty quickly that it would make a fantastic opera set a generation or two later right here on our own shores. 

Allen: Opera can transport you anywhere; my first attempt was set in India. My biggest collaborative effort with Claudia, Middlemarch in Spring, adapted another British novel, set in England. Both of us were excited at the prospect of an American Howards End—the idea to put it in Boston was part of the project from the outset. We welcomed the opportunity to create a piece set in the audience’s own country, and in a time that at least some of us remember, the fifties. Our Middlemarch opera has resonated with audiences in three different productions. But still, we wanted Howards End, America to avoid being perceived as a costume drama set in some remote time and place. 

EM: It’s an interesting choice of periods for your two operas. Could you detail the musical and textual choices you’ve made that makes this opera your story? 

Allen: It’s a story I felt prepared to tell without having to do a lot of research. Although it is not my own story, parts of it line up with my own experience—fascination as a teenager with a level of culture far beyond my own; and the racism I saw all around me. The choice to incorporate excerpts from Beethoven comes out of the novel, in which an inspiring lecture about Beethoven sets the plot in motion (though we use Beethoven’s Ninth rather than the Fifth). It is a strong unifying element and symbol in the first half of the opera, and it even makes a parting appearance in the final scene. I also borrow liberally from the jazz repertoire, having Jacky sing jazz standards by Fats Waller and Gershwin as she puts on a display for Leonard in their shabby lodgings. Juxtaposing classical and jazz elements helps to create tension and underscores the social and cultural divide.

Claudia: I can't say that this is my story, although much—I would say most—of the text is original. The opera does come from a deep place for me, and the text was somehow waiting to be written. I was raised in rural America, surrounded by farmers and mill workers who had just served in WWII. I took in their ways of speaking, their attitudes and aspirations, which still typify rural white America. Some of the language and slang spoken by Charles Wilcox and his father mirror that speech and those mannerisms. The more "elevated" language of Helen and Margaret—that of "privilege"—is familiar to me, mostly from extensive reading of the period. I was concerned whether the language spoken by the African-American Jacky and Leonard would come across as authentic, but our performers reassured me that it works and sounds right for their characters.

Philip Skinner
EM: The parallels between the McCarthy era and our troubled contemporary times seem quite evident to most of us. How does the atmosphere of Howards End, America link to the political situation in our country today? 

Claudia: The parallels are painfully obvious: wide disparities between rich and poor, the lack of empathy, the prevalence of greed and selfishness at the highest levels. Add to this, that in our opera the wealthy and greedy Wilcox family is suspicious of the educated, idealistic, art-loving Schlegel sisters, whom they disparage as being "elites," too European, even Communists. This was at a time when the McCarthy witch hunts were targeting social activists—or even just political opponents on the left—for destruction. In today's America one does not have to look beyond tweets and cable news for similar hate-filled speech and threatening messages. 

EM: Social activism is more than ever a huge part of our lives today. How does the interplay between your characters heighten our social and political awareness? 

Claudia: I think we are already pretty aware socially and politically. The opera emphasizes how trying to "do good," without sufficient understanding of the true meaning and extent of racism, can lead to calamity—that's what happens when Helen and Margaret try to improve the life of a black man. I think it underscores the need for real and deep solutions to poverty and discrimination. But it also suggests the possibility for reconciliation and a way forward—both as individuals and as a society. 

EM: How do the scenic design and imagery portray the character arcs and changing face of the house itself? 

Allen: In Claudia’s libretto the character of Helen, the younger Schlegel sister, is an avid photographer. In the fifties, amateur photography became very popular—everyone seemed to have a camera of some sort. Helen uses hers both as an artistic outlet and a means of chronicling the injustices happening around her. Projections will play a large role in this production, and they will include projections of Helen’s photographs. 

Claudia: The use of doorways—where people are allowed to enter and where they are prohibited from entering—will be a recurring symbol, as well as a design element. 

EM: In what ways do your cast choices intensify the impact of the story? 

Allen: Fortunately, a couple of the performers of Middlemarch in Spring—Sara Duchovnay and Philip Skinner—are returning to take leading roles, Helen Schlegel and Henry Wilcox respectively. We know their acting and singing ability, and that of Nikki Einfeld, who will play Margaret Schlegel. The part of Ruth Wilcox will be taken by Erin Neff, who performed in an earlier opera of ours. Leonard and Jacky Bast are played by Michael Dailey and Candace Johnson, both accomplished African-American opera singers. Since the opera is partly about race, casting had to follow racial lines; color-blind casting could not apply here. With this cast I am confident that there will be plenty of synergy to help drive the story home. 

EM: Thank you both for your insights. I’m looking forward to seeing the premiere of Howards End, America in San Francisco!

Michael Dailey, Nikki Enfield

Howards End, America takes place on Feb. 22-24 at Z_Space

Photo credits: David Becker, Jasmine Van T 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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