Aug/Sep 1998

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Harvey Milk

Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie. Harvey Milk.
San Francisco Opera conducted by Donald Runnicles.
Teldec Recordings 0630-15856-2. 1998.

Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's opera about Harvey Milk had a highly successful premier at the Houston Opera in 1995. The next year, it was staged in San Francisco. This recording is based on that production. It is a fictionalized telling of the life of the gay rights leader and politician, who as San Francisco City Commissioner was assassinated in November 1978 along with Mayor Mascone. The assassin was fellow Commissioner Dan White, whose trial originated the term "Hostess Twinkie defense." The fictionalizing has bothered some reviewers and audience; they include Harvey's participation in the 1968 Stonewall Riots and overlay images from Nazi concentration camps.

Both productions used multiple perspective staging, as in fact the libretto prescribed, so that cinematic cutting, flashbacks and simultaneous scenes in different locations could be realized. In a recording, one would assume that these devises would be impossible to hear and might make for confusion; however, I found that after a single close listening with libretto in hand, subsequent listenings without text no less imaginable than for more traditional operas, and thanks to the singers' precision of English diction, in many ways, more immediately comprehensible. In fact, the coherence of the work as based on a recording alone is quite remarkable. This is surely due, on the one hand, to Korie's masterfully constructed libretto, and, on the other, to the superb meshing of Wallace's musical effects with text. This opera is as much a collaboration as high-water marks like those by Strauss and Hoffmensthal, or Verdi and Boito; by which I mean, the result is the product of a team with a shared vision, responsive to each other's separate talents and worked out as a common goal. Like these illustrious predecessors, Wallace and Korie give to their story mythic grandeur, and as such, the unhistorical fictions are fitting and effective.

One cannot but be charmed by the meta-operatic devise of opening with a scene in which young gay men, including Milk, are watching an opera at the Met in New York. To frame an opera about a gay hero with a scene, which references the stereotypical gay male passion for opera, is delicious. It also serves to invite Korie and Wallace to stage Milk with more operatic and heroic gestures and references than, say, a movie or novel could get away with. And indeed, part of the fun, despite the high drama and pathos of its tragic story, is its operatic grandeur.

Many post Berg twentieth century operas take themselves so seriously in their attempt to evoke either verismo or psychological realism, that audiences are somehow supposed to sit through a seamless unfolding of dialogue and dramatic moments none of which call attention to themselves as either theater or music. Wallace and Korie, on the other hand, give us moments to relish in which we know that we are, indeed after all, "at the opera." This accounts for show-stopping moments such as big choral finales to acts one and two, full-blown arias for Anne Kronenberg, Dan White and Harvey Milk, and the wonderful bed-scene love duet between Harvey and Scott.

Korie has given the singers a rich and idiomatic text to work with-words that are simultaneously evocative, topical and slangy. Wallace's music is eclectic and very approachable, with gestures towards musical comedy as well as grand opera, but it rarely calls attention to itself as strongly marked by a composerly personality or style. I'm not sure, for instance, if I heard another Wallace work, without knowing the composer, that I would know it as his. As I have, however, heard Harvey Milk repeatedly, with renewed pleasures, I have reached a genuine admiration for the effectiveness of Wallace's music in context of the narrative moment at work with Korie's text. This is particularly true with the aforementioned arias and duets-stretches of time that ride on music alone, being as they are relatively dry of action. That these musical stretches win one to them on musical terms goes far to make the opera opera not merely sensational theater.

The musical success is most remarkable in the duet "Harvey and Scott's Bed-4:00 AM" from act two. A lovers' duet between men is automatically and simultaneously a confirmation and affront to operatic convention. Furthermore, this duet shifts between pillow chat about domestic matters like cutting one's hair to the public business of Milk's unsuccessful first run for political office. The 1970s slogan "the personal is the political" is symbolically and deliberately reenacted in this dialogue; at the same time, Korie's words shift from the banal and ordinary to the intimate and the political-the intimate being the least emphasized. Wallace's music powerfully integrates these shifting points of emphasis while undergirding the entire six minute long duet with a tender musical intimacy that imparts both the erotic dynamic between the lovers and the domestic familiarity that grows out of and give durance to the erotic impulse. The simple phrases "You're my family" and "For the one I love," because of Wallace's well-shaped musical texture, evoke a genuine and powerful emotional resonance-the kind of resonance that the best operas have always summoned, even when their librettos are pompous, preposterous, melodramatic and obligatorily heterosexual. Harvey Milk is good opera and never pompous, preposterous, melodramatic nor straight.


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