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"Amelia" at the Seattle Opera

“Amelia” is an opera with its heart in the right place. And no, it is not about Amelia Earhart. These are the two most important things to know about this opera by Daron Hagen and Gardner McFall, which had its world premiere at the Seattle Opera on May 8 (I saw the final performances on May 21 and 22).

Stephen Wadsworth’s name must actually be added to the list of the creators. Not only did he direct, but he took such an active role in the shaping of the piece that his name was added to the score with a “book” credit, not a normal thing in the world of opera. His name belongs there, though, because Wadsworth is strongly literal-minded, and literal-mindedness is this opera’s hallmark -- and, alas, Achilles heel.
(read more after the jump)

Not that the other two creators were underrepresented. This is Hagen’s sixth opera, and he knows how to make music go. “Amelia” has an expressive score interwoven with moments of seeming simplicity: hymn tunes, a capella ensembles, and brief instrumental solos rising from the pit, all divided into scenes with orchestral intermezzi. “The characters demand what kind of music they want to sing,” Hagen said in an interview the morning of the final performance; and in this opera, the characters are “middle-class ordinary normal people.” He felt that the opera was "entirely myself."

And McFall took center stage, because the story of Amelia is based on her own life. This wasn’t the original idea. “Amelia,” like a number of new operas presented by American houses, had a long genesis that began when Speight Jenkins, Seattle’s general director, decided he’d like to put on an opera; enlisted Wadsworth's help in the selection of a composer; and then tackled the issue of what it would be about. Hagen, after several months of having his ideas turned down, thought of doing a work about flight as an allegory for life (the Seattle connection being the presence of the aerospace industry), with poetry by McFall. Wadsworth, according to Hagen, said, “Your literal-minded audience-goers are going to want a stronger through story.” Hagen remembered an autobiographical book of poems McFall had written about the death of her pilot father in the Vietnam War when she was a child; and McFall was asked how she would feel about working the material into an opera. “Amelia” ended up being the story of a woman struggling with the emotions about her lost father that come up when she is pregnant with her first child.

The opera, therefore, is an uneasy balance between Hagen’s and McFall’s more abstract, lyrical or allegorical ideas and Wadsworth’s relentless realism. Some of the original allegory lingered, which means that characters like Daedalus and Icarus and an Amelia-Earhart-like figure called “The Flier” keep popping in around the edges of the main story. Wadsworth, though, is not much given to flights of fancy. Jenkins reported proudly that the leather pilot’s jacket worn by Amelia’s father Dodge (William Burden) was an exact replica of McFall’s father’s actual jacket; the Flier’s airplane is an exact replica of Earhart’s; the Vietnamese village, where Amelia and her mother travel years after Dodge’s death to seek more answers about his loss, is a painstaking facsimile, and the company even hired a Vietnamese dialogue coach to make sure the singers got it right.

But the point of the exercise gets lost in all these details. Making the Flier’s plane so realistic only confuses the audience; is she really about to land on the roof of Amelia’s childhood house? The Vietnam scene presents a detailed reenactment of Viet Cong atrocities, but it’s still hard to believe that Amelia and her mother would get a letter out of the blue after a couple of decades from a Vietnamese couple who saw her father die. The allegorical aspects of the story and music are less enhanced than crushed by the relentless realism; what remained were images of people working out their issues, in textbook psychological phrases, on stage.

Seattle is known for its good vocal casting, and in that regard “Amelia” didn’t disappoint, from the opening scenes in which the child Amelia was played by a petite soprano named Ashley Emerson who actually managed to look like a ten-year-old girl. She grew up into Kate Lindsey, who managed to invest a histrionic role with some credibility and a lovely voice. Luretta Bybee was underused as Amelia’s mother Amanda, who paled in comparison to the heroic-daddy figure of Burden's handsome, mellow Dodge. Dodge also eclipsed Paul, Amelia's husband, who was reduced to a superhumanly nice guy/foil for his wife's daddy fixation, though Nathan Gunn was able to use his light baritone to create the right kind of TV-drama persona. I liked Nicholas Coppolo as Icarus, who works on his wings in Amelia’s marital bedroom in Scene 2. Of the three singers who played Vietnamese in the Vietnam scene and medical personal in the hospital scene (the work climaxes with Amelia giving birth), Karen Vuong’s soaring soprano was especially striking. Gerard Schwarz came over from the Seattle Symphony to lead a decent performance in the pit. And Jane Eaglen had a turn as Amelia’s aunt Helen, who comes in and prays by her bedside during a grief-induced coma, shortly before the birth, that smacked of manufactured drama. At least Eaglen’s vocal unevenness was harnessed in the service of the character, and her voice was certainly a couple of sizes larger than anyone else’s on stage.

To me, “Amelia” illustrates the problems that can arise when a well-meaning commission is hemmed in by too many requirements, or too many cooks. Hagen ultimately felt that “Amelia” was a wonderful experience, but at first he says he “bitterly” resisted the literal direction in which Wadsworth wanted to take it. “Once I wrapped my head around it,” he said, “it became a metaphor for everything in my life I needed to get my head around: collaboration, getting out of the way, acknowledging that there are people out there who are linear thinkers. Just shut up, listen, do your job. And everything flowed out of that.”

“I still get critics who say my music is too eager to please,” he later observed. It seems to me that eagerness to please is a logical byproduct of a situation in which you are trying to give not only your audience, but your commissioner and collaborators, what they want. There are certainly things to like about “Amelia,” which is deliberately tuneful and rich in its music. But its story, ultimately, feels like a Lifetime-channel script made "operatic" through the addition of some over-the-top moments. I don't think that McFall and Hagen would have come up with this on their own. In this collaboration, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its promising parts.

Reviews of "Amelia":
Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times
Bernard Jacobson in The Seattle Times
Melinda Bargreen on The Classical Review
Gavin Borchert in The Seattle Weekly
Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal
Matthew Gurewitsch on Pundicity/Beyond Criticism

By Anne Midgette  |  June 26, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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"It seems to me that eagerness to please is a logical byproduct of a situation in which you are trying to give not only your audience, but your commissioner and collaborators, what they want"

I found this an interesting comment as there are so few opera commissions going, surely, giving the administrator/company/foundation what they want is key to getting the check and, ideally, a reputation for being a 'team player' and thus leading to more commissions?

Not sure how this can be reconciled, apart from the composer (and the librettist, I suppose) constantly reminding themselves that, at the end of the day, its their name which is on the score.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 26, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I attended several performances of "Amelia" during its run in Seattle and cannot understand why Anne Midgette didn't see fit to mention that people were profoundly moved by this opera -- more moved than any opera I have attended (new or old) in the past ten years, all over the country. I was moved myself, but I was even more moved to see people with red eyes and tear-streaked faces hugging one another in the lobby.

What is the agenda here? It seems to me that Anne Midgette has missed the point of this particular opera-going experience: it wasn't about her finding something interesting to say about the collaborative team. It was about her either buying into the opera or not. She evidently did not. Those of us who did had one of the most moving operatic experiences of the past decade.

Anne Midgette alludes to the fact that the opera has its "heart in the right place." My read on her lead sentence is that she finds that sort of courage on the part of creators as being sort of ... twee. Well. I go to the opera to commit to what is going on there.I found it brave and honorable, moving, and human. The fact that it counterbalanced war and the birth of a child as heartbreakingly as it did moved me to tears.

Anyone who has had a child will find "Amelia" to be one of the most moving experiences they've ever had in the theater.

Far from being "eager to please," I found this opera to be brave and emotionally accessible at a time when clever ("sophisticated") people find that sort of thing to be embaressing. Perhaps they should examine why they themselves feel so embaressed? Could it be because honest emotions honestly expressed at an original, sophisticated level, climb in somewhere a little too close to the heart?

Posted by: newyorkerneil | June 26, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

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