Pushing Opera's Envelope
AMERICAN THEATRE

July 6, 2009

Santa Fe Opera Festival premieres an "opera noire"

In April, Twitter organized a contest inviting opera geeks to “tweet” an opera synopsis in 140 characters or less. Inspired by the concept, Terry Teachout jotted-down the following denouement on his blog: “Adultery, murder, lies, blackmail, confession, trial, hallucination, acquittal, confrontation, disaster, blood, blackout.” The Wall Street Journal theatre critic had no intention of actually entering the competition. But in the case of The Letter, a new opera composed by Paul Moravec with libretto by Teachout, Twitter might be an ideal communications platform.

Running at just 90 intermission-less minutes – concision rarely heard of in the opera world – and opening to the sound of gun-shots followed by the sight of the protagonist clutching a smoking revolver over the body of her dead lover, The Letter promises to pack the no-nonsense punch of a 140-character communiqué. Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1927 stage adaptation of one of his stories, (which in turn became a Bette Davis movie in 1940) Teachout and Moravec’s “opera noire” receives its premiere this July at Santa Fe Opera in a production directed by Jonathan Kent. The opera stars Patricia Racette and Anthony Michaels-Moore as an unhappy expatriate couple whose life in the Malayan jungle is ransacked by passion, violence and revenge.

From the outset, Moravec and Teachout wanted to create a work as fast-moving and emotionally-intense as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck or Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. “We had talked early on about the possibility of writing a Raymond Chandler opera, and Paul also suggested that Casablanca would make a perfect libretto,” says Teachout. “I nipped those ideas in the bud, knowing that we could never get the rights to adapt Casablanca. But the idea of writing a “film noir” opera was still very much in our minds when I suggested “The Letter” to Paul.”

Yet for all the subject matter’s populist appeal, the creative team has strived to emphasize the lyrical qualities of Maugham’s pot-boiler. “I wouldn't want anyone to get the idea that The Letter is, in the oft-quoted phrase with which Joseph Kerman amusingly (and wrongly) dismissed Tosca, ‘a shabby little shocker,’” says Teachout. “Paul and I have gone to considerable trouble to heighten the emotional climate of the play, in the process turning it from a neatly turned thriller into a full-fledged piece of lyric theater. Our characters, unlike Maugham's, are concerned not just with their own desires but with the state of their souls.”

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