"Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"
-- Slightly tasteless American joke (trad.)
Opera, even the most established and beloved opera, appeals only to the few. Opera of the 20th and 21st centuries appeals only to a few among the few. And there are few projects more fraught with cultural peril and potential for embarrassment than commissioning and premiering a new opera over the past half century. Locally, Los Angeles Opera has run off the rails with such misjudged efforts as 2003's Nicholas and Alexandra or 2008's The Fly. The mighty Metropolitan Opera has hardly done better. It is exceptionally difficult even to bring a new opera to the stage, any stage, let alone have that opera be worth hearing once it gets there.
Given the challenges of launching a new work and the stacking of the odds so thoroughly against the success of the venture even with large scale institutional support, what hope is there for the individual enthusiast, the sort who enjoys, nay loves, the opera and who one day just ups and decides that he wants to write one? Last night, at least, the odds were largely beaten in, of all places, a small auditorium at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior on the campus of UCLA with the world premiere of The First Lady, a new opera composed by Kenneth Wells.
Wells is a psychiatrist and professor at the Semel Institute, an opera fancier and lifelong amateur composer, but not a musician by profession. He decided in the late 1980s to attempt to write an opera libretto, on the subject of Eleanor Roosevelt. When he found himself libretto in hand in the mid-1990s, he apparently decided to write the music as well and, over the next decade, produced a complete two-act opera. The opera's creation played out alongside the battles of Wells' friend, fellow music lover and credited co-librettist Rickard Roudebush, with cancer. Roudebush survived and sang a small role in last night's premiere, and the whole story is so ripe with human interest that it made page one of yesterday's Los Angeles Times.
The First Lady presents a fictionalized version of events in the immediate aftermath of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR appears in the first scene, just long enough to be lauded to the skies before suffering a sudden, fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He is in Warm Springs, Georgia, and in the company of Mrs. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, a woman not his wife, but formerly his lover, and with whom he has maintained a secret bond with the assistance of his personal staff and his daughter Anna. Eleanor Roosevelt, in Washington, is informed of the President's death, but only after a delay to allow Mrs. Rutherfurd to slip away unnoticed. Over the course of Act 1, as she travels to Warm Springs and returns to Washington on the presidential funeral train, Eleanor discovers that she has been deceived: her husband has gone back on his promise never to see Mrs. Rutherfurd again, and he has done so with the active assistance of others, including Anna, in whom Eleanor has placed her trust.
In Act 2, Eleanor wreaks terrible vengeance on those who have betrayed her, finally garroting Harry Truman with his own suspenders and leaping to her tragic death from atop the burning Jefferson Memorial, singing all the while.
No, wait: that's the Italian opera version of the story.
In the actual Act 2 of The First Lady, Eleanor progresses through her despair and anger to a reconciliation of sorts with both Lucy Rutherfurd and Anna, the War in Europe is won, Eleanor steels herself to continue her public life and the three women end the opera reflecting on what they have gained and lost by their respective loves for the dead FDR.
Musically, The First Lady is solidly in the Late Twentieth Century Tonal tradition, American Branch. Copland's hymn-based influence is evident, as is the serious, dissonant-but-not-too-dissonant, side of Bernstein. In Act 2, Wells allows just a few Glass-Adams arpeggios and ostinati to slip in, to excellent effect. Recognizable melodies are occasionally quoted -- hymns favored by FDR, the bit that everybody knows from Dvořák's "New World" symphony, a large snippet of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in celebration of the victory in Europe -- usually skewed into minor key variants on themselves. It is not groundbreaking music, and does not pretend to be, but neither is it rote nor blatantly imitative nor boring. Perhaps the best thing about the vocal writing is Wells' conscious choice to imitate the ensemble structure of Mozart, in which narrative and solos are interspersed with various combinations of characters in duets, trios and quartets. That approach works particularly well, for example, in the final trio for Eleanor, Lucy and Anna, and in permitting FDR's staff to be seen as roughly equivalent to scheming Renaissance courtiers.
When I savaged The Fly, I concluded that the first among multiple offenders was David Henry Hwang, whose libretto did nearly everything wrong. I am convinced that a sound text is at least half the battle in creating a successful opera, by which I mean a piece that will hold together at least as well dramatically as it does musically. That is a theme for another post I have in mind, but The First Lady can stand as a good example of the point.
When he had finished his libretto -- with an assist from Roudebush, Gayle Patterson, and his son Matt -- Ken Wells had himself a solid and well-structured dramatic armature on which he could then build his music. Verdi is good; late Verdi, with those fine Boito libretti, is vastly better. Ken Wells is neither Verdi nor Boito, and I don't want to oversell The First Lady as more than it has set out to be, but Wells' dramatic instincts were plenty sound enough to produce a work that is more deserving of continued life than are most of the recent big-name commissions staged by big-name companies.
This is a chamber opera, scored for an orchestra of only eleven instruments which make a surprisingly mighty noise when called upon to do so. The opera would benefit from a somewhat larger house than it has at the Semel Auditorium, but it would be lost altogether in an overlarge space such as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I blame the tight quarters at UCLA for the too static staging of this premiere, under the direction of Courtney Selan. Too often the singers were left with nothing to do but stand and sing, and too often a character's inner turmoil (Eleanor's in particular) is conveyed by their entering or exiting with zombie-like slowness.
Having reached the point of writing about the performers, blogger ethics compel me to disclose that the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in this production is sung by my sister, Jennifer Wallace. My clear bias notwithstanding, Jennifer is a very good dramatic mezzo soprano, and has sung now for many years with Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere. She spent the past week fighting to maintain her voice, and was not quite back to full vocal fettle last night. (She tells me she was barely able to talk, let alone sing, a few days ago, and for that reason does not appear in the preview trailer, though her voice can be heard in the audio slideshow that accompanies the Los Angeles Times article.) This sort of thing happens to Placid Domingo all the time, and yet he pulls through impressively. As did my sister, bringing gravitas, nuance and point to her role, and actually gaining strength and poise as the evening progressed. I would venture that she will be increasingly impressive over the remainder of the run.
The more obviously showy vocal parts are not written for Eleanor, but for the two sopranos singing Lucy and Anna, Hannah Waldman and Rebecca Sjowall here, each of whom made the most of what she was given. The First Lady is, not surprisingly, focused on its female characters, with the men largely secondary and supportive. The high point among the male parts is that of FDR's valet, CPO Arthur Prettyman, sung here by bass-baritone Cedric Berry. Prettyman is given a moving little scene to himself in Act 2, mourning wordlessly in the company of the President's now-empty wheelchair.
Thanks to that first page piece in yesterday's Times (which really says nothing about the opera itself), and to the size of the hall, and to the fact that admission is reserved but free, I am given to understand that the remaining five scheduled performances of The First Lady are fully booked. There are unsubstantiated rumors of added performances that are theoretically possible but as yet no more than that. Information and waiting lists can be accessed at www.thefirstladyopera.com.
Photo: The opening night First Lady cake, not yet devoured. Photo by the blogger. I am trying to gain access to production photos, but have not yet succeeded. Update will follow when I do.
Here, Mrs. Roosevelt is seen diligently responding to fan mail from some flounder:
Photo via thefirstladyopera.com.