Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in San Francisco – June 12, 2005

May 21st, 2006

When is it cool to change the sexual orientation of an operatic character?*  Suppose you are an “opera concept director”, and have decided you really want to make a statement on Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”, but that your next operatic assignment is “Harvey Milk”, the opera by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie about the gay San Francisco supervisor who is shot to death by a mentally unbalanced supervisorial colleague.

[Below: Mischa Didyk (center, lying on floor) as Ghermann; edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


But since you really are in the mood for 17th century puritan New England, why not consider presenting Harvey Milk, the character in the opera, as a manifestation of Arthur Dimmesdale, the conflicted heterosexual preacher, lusting after Hester Prynne, whose illegitimate child he has fathered.

Since as a concept director you are not bound to a literal interpretation of the opera’s libretto, and, apparently (as long as you don’t change a word of the libretto, nor a note of the music) have no bounds on what you do with the stage settings or stage direction, you are licensed to impose whatever curious thoughts you might have on the opera’s management, performers and audiences.

One might think of the concept directors as doing homage to the notorious Jack the Ripper, who took pleasure in mutilating the bodies of women.  The analogous mutilation is that of whatever opera is the victim of their attentions, or, more precisely, the victim is the intent of composer and librettist as to what the opera is about.

So much concept direction occurs in Europe (and briefly in San Francisco during the five year tenure of General Director Pamela Rosenberg), it is surprising how little enlightened discussion goes on about the practice.  After all, who could object to the idea of setting Massenet’s “Werther” in a Laundromat?

Jack the Ripper’s victims were considered low-life by polite society, as, in some quarters, are considered all of the operatic works of Massenet.  If there is no harm in trashing Massenet, then would there be a substantive argument against the character Harvey Milk being presented as the Reverend Dimmesdale lusting after Hester Prynne?

Perhaps a couple of arguments could be advanced.  First, absolutely nothing in the libretto, musical score, nor source material (in the case of “Harvey Milk”, an actual life and death) supports such a concept.  The singers would be singing words that are totally out of context to the proposed dramatic situation.  Conceptual dissonance would occur because the composer and librettist had specific thoughts in mind as what is happening in the opera that do not coincide with the thoughts of the concept director.

Second, if one veers too far away with what composer and librettist meant to create, it deprives the legitimate audience for the composer and librettist’s work from experiencing a valid interpretation of what the creators of the opera intended.

The Louvre would never think of displaying da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” upside down, and would surely resist the idea of paying a “concept art displayer” to impose such a perverse idea on the museum’s patrons. Why do those artists that produce paintings they intend to be seen from a specific point of view, garner a respect that those who produce operatic works for performance, at least in some opera houses, do not?

Of course, this Fantasy League admixture of Stewart-Korie and Hawthorne is a reductio-ad-absurdum.  But merely a step from such absurdity is the determination of a Jack-the-Ripper concept director, Richard Jones, to introduce gay characters where none are expected, with, one surmises, the objective of “outing” the opera’s composer.

Count Tomsky and the Transvestite

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was bedeviled with demons that were particularly incessant in the last few years of his life up until his very unpleasant death. “Queen of Spades” dates from that time.

Some details of his life, including his sexuality, are murky — almost certainly deliberately so.  There are alternative characterizations of the events of his later life, each of which might, in the right hands, make for an interesting drama, perhaps even an opera.  Such characterizations would not need even to be based on truth to provide a dramatic scenario – consider Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Mozart and Salieri” (based on Pushkin).

Jones and his collaborating production designer, John MacFarlane, were the creative spirits that brought San Francisco their Welsh National Opera production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, in a sometimes interesting, usually cramped and ugly, and almost always dreadful concept that might be summarized as “evil lurks in traditional families of mother, father, sister and brother and in their outside world as well”.

The production notes reference Jones’ concept that he discerns interconnections between all the characters in “Queen of Spades” beyond the information that Pushkin and the Brothers Tchaikovsky (composer and librettist) have provided us.

(More than one concept directors reference such “perceived interconnectedness” to justify frankly unorthodox readings – “Eurotrash” –  to use a term that became quite popular in San Francisco to describe productions of the years of Pamela Rosenberg’s general directorship.)

But of all the operas in the Standard Repertory, there are hardly any whose psycho-dramatic elements are more central to the drama than this one.  The “Queen” abounds in obsessions – Ghermann’s, Lisa’s, the Countess’.  Very little is held back.

Presenting the opera as intended illuminates the “interconnectedness” of these characters – if, indeed, this is where we need to focus. But is that really where Jones intended us to focus? I think there are other interconnections at work here. Jones’ concept appears to me to be a commentary on what he believes were the secret obsessions of the work’s composer.

Jones obviously took note that there is a character in the opera, Count Tomsky, whose name begins with the same letter as Tchaikovsky’s (at least when that is the way we traditionally translate the name from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman).  Also, when so translated, both the Count’s and composer’s names end in “sky”.

Tomsky’s function in Tchaikovsky’s opera (and in the novella by Pushkin on which it was based) is exposition.  It is Tomsky’s first big aria that tells the story of the Countess’ discovery of the order in which “three cards” should be played (and importance of that aria is underscored by its first notes having been presaged in the first notes of the opera).

[Below: the Richard Jones sets for the gambling scene in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” with the “Countess’ skeleton puppet peering from the ceiling; edited image, based on a Larry Merkle photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Of course, this idea of Tomsky representing Tchaikovsky’s hidden obsessions will sail over the heads of almost all the audience.  So, what might be done to drive the point home?  Well, (for an interpretation that would certainly have startled Pushkin) let’s make Count Tomsky openly gay.  A few more of the audience might then get the drift.

Unfortunately, for a concept director, it is pretty hard to develop convincing portrayals of openly gay characters in standard opera repertory, since the number of such characters appears to be pretty close to zero. So, any attempt to try to make a character “gay” when the dialogue and dramatic situations are saying something else, can be pretty confusing.

Every couple of decades or so, at least since the mid-20th century, someone tries.  In a Swedish production of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, the tenor role represents Swedish King Gustavus III, as originally intended by the composer.

At the time of the opera’s composition, however, the occupying Austrian censors, worried about the portrayal of the assassination of a European monarch, required the character representing a King of Sweden to be changed to Riccardo, a Governor of Puritan Boston.  Since the Swedish version is loosely based on the life of a historical king of controversial sexuality, a production created for Sweden in the 1960s had tenor Ragnar Ulfung more or less pawing the page Oscar.

The pawing (intended to represent sexual lust between men) itself proved to be problematic for audiences to understand, since Oscar is sung by a female coloratura soprano dressed as a page boy, and the plot has Gustavus/Riccardo in a passionate, clandestine love affair with his best friend’s wife.

But it got even more complicated: when Ulfung was engaged by San Francisco Opera in 1967 to repeat his famous characterization, the S.F. production in use at that time was the version of the opera that takes place in Colonial Boston.  What Oscar’s function was supposed be in the chambers of a Puritan Governor was itself unclear, but I doubt that many in the audience grasped that he (played by Reri Grist, a very attractive “she”) was supposed to be a young man who was dating the Governor on the side.

How do you project a gay character in “Queen of Spades” anyway?  There are drinking scenes in which the vodka-soused men fall into each others’ arms, but that’s how you portray those scenes even when all the men are assumed to be straight.

Jones’ solution was to introduce a transvestite character, costumed like someone who has stepped out of a Weimar Republic-era cabaret in Berlin.  To avoid anyone in the audience not getting the point, opportunities needed to be introduced into the stage direction so that, at different points, the transvestite removes his wig and bares his chest so that you know he is a male.

Simultaneously, you direct opportunities for Tomsky and his cross-dressing companion to snuggle, and you create a grand finale where the two fall into each others’ arms on a giant round gambling table.

There is the additional problem that all of this takes place in Russia at the time of Catherine the Great, whose grand entrance is the end of a key scene.  The best way to handle the charge of perverse anachronism is to shatter time and space, and to costume all the characters in styles that could be variously from the 1890s and 1920s.

The Puppet Countess

The music introducing the arrival of Catherine? Don’t sweat it.  No one will notice or care.  The Countess’ recollections of her youth at Versailles in the Court of Louis XV? Don’t worry about that either.  We can replace the Countess, at least when she appears as a ghost, with a giant puppet.

[Below: Ghermann (Mischa Didyk, left) discovers he is not alone in his bed; edited image, based on a Clive Barda photograph for the Welsh National Opera.]


In fact, Jones’ concept production seems as if he started in three separate directions, and decided, a la “Ariadne auf Naxos”, to merge them at the last moment.  There is the “Gay Tomsky” theme, there are Puppet Shows large and small, and there is (what appears from the “Hansel” and “Queen” productions to be) a signature Jones-MacFarlane idea of cramping much of an opera’s action into a world of grey and black box-like sets, that use only a portion of the opera house stage.

In fact, in the most memorable scene in the Jones’ production, using one of these box-sets, Ghermann is in his bed, haunted by thoughts of the Countess, but the audience’s perspective is to see him as if we were flies watching him from his bedroom ceiling.  (His bed is the back wall of the stage.)  A letter falls from his hand, seemingly onto the floor (but, of course, is really stuck on the back wall).

At the point when, in traditional productions, the Countess’ ghost appears, in this production a giant puppet of the Countess’ skeleton emerges from under the covers. (Earlier, a puppet show also was used in place of the Daphnis and Chloe Pastorale, in which Lisa, Pauline and Count Tomsky play bucolic characters.

However, although giant puppets and little puppets might justify the salaries of the required puppeteers, no dramatic interconnectedness existed between the two scenes.)

There are many other oddities of the production that could be reported, but the trio of principals Misha Didyk (Ghermann), Katarina Dalayman (Lisa) and Hanna Schwarz (Countess) all deserve kudos for fine singing in a production unworthy of their talents.  For the record, the Tomsky was Tomas Tomasson, the Yeletsky was John Hancock and Katherine Rohrer was the Pauline.

One cannot imagine any of the previous San Francisco Opera directors even inviting Richard Jones into the opera house, much less giving him the opportunity to mount two of his productions in the main seasons.  With last year’s departure of General Director Pamela Rosenberg, one would expect no future assignments for this Jack the Ripper concept director, whose work will remain only as a vaguely unpleasant memory.

*For my own reply to the question I posed, “When is it cool to change the sexual orientation of an operatic character?”, see: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.


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