HCO conjures David Lynch in Stravinsky opera

posterThe Rake's Progress gets a makeover with "neo-noir seedy" setting. 

By Olivia Munk '16

Ah, the opera. Is there any other art form more entrenched in stereotypes? It’s hard to hear the word and not conjure up images of tiny binoculars on a stick, shattered champagne glasses and women in Viking hats.

Though it’s likely that one could wander into the Metropolitan Opera tonight and experience a variety, if not all three, of those themes, more often than not, modern operas are subverting expectations. Sometimes they’re about the poetry of Walt Whitman (American Repertory Theater’s Crossing); sometimes they’re about talk show hosts (Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera). And sometimes, they’re about bachelors who fall in with the Devil and end up in a mental institution.

Rake's Progress PosterFor anyone wary of opera stereotypes but intrigued by the form, Harvard College Opera Society’s The Rake’s Progress might be an antidote. Notably, the show is created and performed entirely by undergraduates, a feat rarely undertaken outside of conservatories and graduate programs. Music director Jake Wilder-Smith ’16 and director Joule Voelz ’17 were inspired by the aesthetics of David Lynch films when constructing a setting for this 1953 opera (music by Igor Stravinsky, and book by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman).

I sat down with Voelz and Wilder-Smith before a technical rehearsal to discuss the challenges of directing a production of this nature, the musical conversation that Stravinsky imagined with Mozart, and how an opera and Twin Peaks can be similar.

How has it been directing an opera as your first directing project at Harvard?
JV: It has been extremely daunting, because I've never directed anything before. It made me pay attention to the things you can and can't pay attention to. If you were directing a small show with four characters, you would spend a lot of your time talking about character work, and physicality. But the reality of [an opera's rehearsal schedule] is that you just don't have time to do that. I approached it much more about how things are arranged, and how things look visually. It made me much more mindful of how people receive rehearsals than I've ever been before.

JWS: Something that is especially daunting for an opera director is knowing how to deal The Rake's Progresswith voices, especially in the sense that there are voices onstage, and then that those voices in space interact differently, like anything else, like with musical theater. Working with singers is such a different thing, especially how singing interacts with acting and physicality. Singing is such a physical thing. I think Joule has a very good eye and ear for that.

You've music directed an opera before (Così fan tutte in 2014). What did you learn from previous processes that you're implementing now?
JWS: I learned so much. What's great about HCO is that you're thrown into something huge. The idea of an undergraduate-driven opera is kind of insane. There are so many things I learned from Così from the process of doing it. This is also such a different project, though. I’ve been surprised by that. In some ways it's similar, since the size of the orchestra is similar to that of a Mozart opera. Stravinsky very much had Mozart in his head, and was kind of in a conversation with Mozart, and was poking fun at him in it. The biggest thing is that the music is much more challenging vocally and technically, for the orchestra musicians, for the singers, and for me. It’s very rhythmically difficult. It's been thrilling for me, and thrilling for the singers and musicians. However, it has also been frustrating at times, just because the rhythms are so intricate, and it really is just tremendously difficult. But, it's so good once it fits together. We’ve had some moments where things just come together, such as tough quartets, and pieces for the orchestra, where suddenly everything clicks. You hear the Mozart in it, then you hear the Stravinsky in it –all of these elements glimmering off of each other.

Tell me about your setting of the show.
JV: It's set in this vaguely defined industrial plant that is transformed into a nightmare kind of thing. I'd say we were both inspired by the David Lynch film Blue Velvet and to some extent Twin Peaks. It's this surreal, neo-noir seedy thing that goes on: In the first scene, there's something fun about a location that can transform through "the magic of theater." Using lights, we can make this place that looks like the inside of a garment factory, look like the inside of a seedy nightclub, then a mental asylum and the inside of someone's house. Part of that was driven by the fact that the show has so many different locations, and it was a challenge to see how we could get all these things onstage within budget. One of the ways to do that is have it all be part of the same location.

How did you go about with the set design?
JV: This opera is so self-conscious of itself as a story. As you'll see at the end, there's an epilogue where everyone takes off their wigs and says, "This is the moral of the story." It's very self-conscious about its role. My original idea was – and this has actually been done by another director of this opera, Robert Lepage – to have the opera on the set of a movie. It's a very self-reflective opera. I liked the idea of doing something that was like a sound stage, a barren location that lends itself to playing around with shadows, lights and the effect of people on different levels. 

JWS: On that David Lynch theme, in Blue Velvet, and to a lesser extent Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, there is a sense of timelessness. David Lynch has very clear noir sensibilities, and yet his movies aren't period pieces in the same way that Carol is about the ‘60s. He evokes place, and he evokes time, but somehow it's in this more abstract sphere, which is what we were both drawn to. It was like we were in a different zone that has no time. It's at once drawing back to these engravings, which are of course an odd source for this opera, and those are from the 18th century. It also draws very heavily upon 18th century operatic form, structured in arias, duets, trios and recits. It has a harpsichord and is using the same forms that Mozart was in his operas. And Stravinsky messes with it all a lot.

There's this one line in the opera that haunts me, I've become obsessed with it: "Here has no words, nor absence or estrangement, nor now a notion of almost or too late." It's at this moment of redemption in the opera in Act Three, sung between Tom Rakewell [a rake] and Anne Trulove [his betrothed]. Tom has gone crazy and now he thinks he's Adonis, Anne is playing into it and becoming Venus. There's a sense that the immediacy of the music in that moment, it almost takes over from the words, and there's a way in which music does that. It's kind of an oxymoronic statement to make that “here has no words, nor absence or estrangement,” because as they sing that, absence and estrangement are coming through, and those are the themes of the opera itself. But there is a way in which the opera exists in the here and now, even as it comments on Mozart, even as it comments on these engravings, even as it pulls together a lot of themes of 20th century anxiety.

Harvard College Opera will present The Rake’s Progress 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3-6 at Agassiz Theatre. The runtime for the show is 2.5 hours. Tickets are $10 for students, $20 for the public. For information on tickets, click here.