Cold War-era thriller premieres as opera

AP News
Posted: Mar 05, 2015 2:07 PM
Cold War-era thriller premieres as opera

Take a little brainwashing, add a few political assassinations and stir in a villainess evil enough to rival Lady Macbeth. The enduring result is "The Manchurian Candidate," first as a novel, then two movies and now — an opera.

"When you look for an operatic subject, you look for something larger than life," said Mark Campbell, librettist for the work that will be given its world premiere by the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday night. "You look for passion in an opera, and this one has it."

The story originated as Richard Condon's paranoid thriller, published in 1959 and adapted into two successful films. The first of these, released in 1962, featured Angela Lansbury in an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance as the relentlessly scheming senator's wife, Eleanor Iselin. (Meryl Streep played the role in the 2004 remake, while soprano Brenda Harris stars in the operatic version.)

Her over-the-top character was one of the main things that attracted both Campbell and composer Kevin Puts to the project.

"She's such an incredibly operatic villainess," Puts said. "She was absolutely one of the first elements that drew me to the story, knowing that she would be such a great character to write arias for."

Both Campbell and Puts were interviewed by phone last week from St. Paul, where they were presiding over final rehearsals for the new work. For both men, it's a reunion with the Minnesota Opera, since the company also commissioned their last collaboration, "Silent Night," based on "Joyeux Noel," a French film about a spontaneous Christmas truce among hostile armies early in WWI.

That opera, Puts' first, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music and has since been staged in cities that include Fort Worth, Texas; Philadelphia; Wexford, Ireland; Calgary, Canada; and most recently Kansas City, Mo.

Puts, who had written a substantial body of chamber and orchestral works before turning to opera, resists having his musical style narrowly defined, and indeed the Pulitzer board in giving the award praised "Silent Night" for "displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart." Among his influences, he cites the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius and fellow Americans Samuel Barber and John Adams. One of Eleanor's arias bears some resemblance to Madame Mao's bravura showpiece in Adams' "Nixon in China," with its furious intensity and lunging high notes.

As with any new work, Puts said he has been tinkering with his score up to the last minute. "They're mostly minor, things like, oh, we could use a little more time here so let's insert four measures," he said. "This is a thriller, so the pace is quite fast. But we also needed to find moments where the audience can kind of take a breath."

Campbell, who has written librettos for numerous other composers, praised Puts for avoiding what he considers a sin of much modern opera, where "the composer has just taken a play and set it to music. It becomes so tedious and it doesn't use the form properly."

"I like the big aria, I like when the soprano hits the high note. I like it when five people are singing about different things at the same time and the music takes over," Campbell said. "Kevin does not dumb down. It's completely contemporary music. We're just giving it a strong story and a few tunes."

Though no other companies have yet committed to producing "The Manchurian Candidate" after its five-performance run in Minnesota, lots of producers will be attending the premiere. And so will critics.

"They want to make sure Kevin doesn't have second opera-itis," Campbell said. "That he was a one-hit wonder. And of course that's not true."

Tomer Zvulun, director of the Atlanta Opera, who directed the European premiere of "Silent Night" at the Wexford Festival, praised the new work after attending a workshop performance last weekend. "It constantly surprised me," he told the StarTribune of Minneapolis. "It's a powerful thriller that moves rapidly through realism, surrealism, imagination and suspense. And it sounds effortless."

Still, Puts admitted to feeling nervous "now that we're getting down to the wire. There is a lot of expectation and you do start to feel very vulnerable to what could be said. But all you can do is put everything you have into it."

And then plunge ahead into new projects. He and Campbell are already working on their next collaboration, a chamber piece for Opera Philadelphia based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd about a London serial murder case called "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree."

"It's dark, and 'Manchurian' is dark," Puts said, "so I'm going to look for something a little more uplifting and optimistic after that."