Theodore Morrison marks his first collaborations with The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia with Oscar, an opera in two acts based on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. Commissioned by both companies, Oscar received its world premiere run at The Santa Fe Opera during the summer season of 2013, and the newly revised opera will receive its East Coast premiere run by Opera Philadelphia in the Academy of Music in February 2015 starring the same principal cast led by countertenor David Daniels in the title role. The libretto is co-authored by John Cox and the composer.
Morrison says of John Cox, "As one of our great stage directors, John is as exciting an inventor of language for the opera stage as I can imagine. For several years he and I consulted over fifty books and articles by and about Oscar Wilde and created a libretto that is based on Wilde's own writings and those of his contemporaries, especially the ones we have placed as principal characters in the opera: Wilde's friends and advocates Ada Leverson and Frank Harris, and Walt Whitman, who fulfills the function of an observer and commentator speaking from Immortality.
"As part of our research, John and I communicated with Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde and the preeminent contemporary scholar of his grandfather. We wanted to create a stage work that presents a fresh and provocative take on the subject. Most accounts of the fall of Oscar Wilde present him as victim. We embrace him as a brave man who was often profoundly self-destructive. Ours is a serious opera, but filled with delightful witticisms of Wilde, Leverson and Harris. The connective tissue is ours.
Merlin Holland shared these reflections after seeing OSCAR in Santa Fe: "My grandfather's story has been told dozens of times and from dozens of angles but never, until now, has he been accorded the singular distinction of the title role in an opera. Some might say -- and much of Victorian England did at the time -- that he deserved his fate, and that honouring him with a musical work of art in this way is excessive. Fortunately, the world has moved on since those days of blinkered prejudice and Theo Morrison and John Cox saw in Oscar's life all the elements of the classic tragedy that it was. Hero? Not really. Saint? Certainly not. Just a profoundly 'human' being who still makes us laugh, but whose work often forces us to stop and think a hundred years after 'the love that dare not speak its name' brought him to prison and an early death. A story made for the emotional world of the opera? Yes, indeed. Surprising that no one thought of it before."
Morrison continues: "Over the past six months John and I have been making substantive revisions to the libretto in joyful anticipation of the Philadelphia run, and of course those revisions have affected the music in significant ways. The outer ends will be considerably different than they were in Santa Fe, and smaller changes abound in the interior. We feel that this reconsidered structure and its detail will help to bring a deeper understanding of the turbulent story of Oscar Wilde's trials and imprisonment to our new audiences, and it has brought wonderful musical opportunities to me as composer. This is exciting! Having a guaranteed second run offers me a unique opportunity to strengthen the opera.
Opera Philadelphia has given me very strong encouragement for this new phase of the project, and so has the principal cast led by the great David Daniels in the title role. David and I have collaborated closely on all aspects of this project, the subject of which is certainly timely in America as well as around the world."
In addition to David Daniels in the title role, the other major roles in the world premiere at The Santa Fe Opera were created by soprano Heidi Stober as Ada Leverson, tenor William Burden as Frank Harris, and baritone Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman. These artists will reprise their roles in Philadelphia, and the production is again to be directed by Kevin Newbury, with choreography by Seán Curran. The design team includes David Korins (scenic), David Woolard (costume), and Rick Fisher (lighting). Evan Rogister conducts.
Australian dancer Reed Luplau returns to portray Oscar's great love, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), who is sometimes masked to represent other characters in Oscar's imagination and delirium: a baggage porter, a waiter in a French café, the prison physician, and Death. Wilde famously wrote, "Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth."
I am hoping that Oscar will be the highlight of my career. I have always said that new music is going to be essential for the evolution of the countertenor voice to continue and to have staying power. This opera answers that imperative with a strong, appealing character and deeply compelling music.
Theo writes so beautifully for the countertenor. He crafts the perfect partnership of voice and orchestra. Because the libretto that John and Theo created shows Wilde's incredible wit as well as the torture and humiliation he endured, the vocal writing ranges from lyrical arias to jagged expressions of torment. This gives it great variety and makes it so gratifying to sing. I am sure our audiences will love Oscar as much in Philadelphia as they did in Santa Fe.
- David Daniels
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