Reviewed by Judy Richter
Composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie took a calculated risk when the San Francisco Opera opened their new opera, Harvey Milk, Nov. 9 at the Orpheum Theatre. After all, the subject of their three-act work rose to fame and martyrdom in San Francisco, where he became the first openly gay elected public official as a member of the city's Board of Supervisors in 1977. He and Mayor George Moscone then were assassinated by Dan White, who had just resigned from the board and wanted to return, on Nov. 27, 1978.
Their deaths resulted in a spontaneous act of public mourning, a candlelight march from the city's largely gay Castro area down Market Street to City Hall that night. Every year their deaths are commemorated with another such march. In fact, this year the SFO will hold the curtain of its Nov. 27 performance of Harvey Milk for 30 minutes to allow march participants to get to the theater on time.
Because Milk is so closely associated with San Francisco and because so many people who knew him are still alive and likely to attend a performance, Wallace and Korie face an especially tough audience. Of course, San Francisco also is known as a discerning opera town, a situation that adds to the creators' challenge.
They must have been relieved when the opening night audience greeted the performance with cheers. Indeed, there is much to cheer about in this opera, which was co-commissioned by the SFO with the Houston Grand Opera and New York City Opera. The work premiered in Houston in January 1991 and went on to New York as well as Germany (where it was performed in German rather than English). Since then it has been revised. The San Francisco production is the premiere of that revised version.
Although I have not seen the other productions, others who have say that indeed this is an improved version. However, despite the improvements and the work's strengths, it also has its weaknesses.
Chief among them is the vocal music. While some of the arias and ensembles are good, others lack dramatic flair and melodic fluency. The choruses are particularly short on drama. The orchestral music, however, is consistently effective, thanks in great part to SFO music director Donald Runnicles' compelling conducting. Runnicles also is credited with advising Wallace on revisions to the score.
Christopher Alden's staging also has its strengths and weaknesses. While many scenes are quite well-done, others could be more dramatic. His handling of the Gay Day Parade in Act 2 is a case in point. It lacks the energy and excitement of the real thing. Of course, he's hampered by the relatively small stage, made smaller by the triangular configuration of Paul Steinberg's set design, which limits entrance points and playing areas. However, the configuration is significant because of the symbolism that the triangle, specifically the pink triangle, has for gays because of its connection to Nazi persecution of homosexuals during the Hitler regime.
Another scene that could be more powerful is the final scene, which evokes the candlelight march by having the chorus stand in a triangular formation with candles. Perhaps it would work better if the chorus entered through the audience or if photos from that first march - when Market Street was a miles-long stream of candles - were projected onto the stage.
More intimate scenes tend to work better, as do the horrible moments when White enters Moscone's office, talks with him for a few minutes, shoots him in the back, then fires several more shots, ending with one point-blank into the prone mayor's head. White then calmly reloads his gun and proceeds to Milk's office, where he repeats the process, including that coup de grâce to the head. Perhaps this scene is so powerful because it's so close to actual accounts of the murders.
Other scenes are more fanciful, compressing experiences into theatrical shorthand that gets the point across quite well. In the first act, for example, called ``The Closet,'' the adult Milk wears handcuffs after being arrested for cruising an undercover cop in New York's Central Park, a popular gay pickup place. He continues to wear those handcuffs through several scenes until the Stonewall riots break out in New York and he concludes that he can no longer hide his identity, that he must come out as a gay man.
The libretto and staging also do a great job of pairing Milk's identity as a Jew and his knowledge of the Holocaust with his identity as a gay man during a time when gays were still hounded and persecuted.
Indeed, Act 1 is quite powerful with such scenes as the young Harvey wondering about ``these men without wives'' whom he sees at the old Met and later with the adult Harvey meeting activist Scott Smith, who became his lover and partner as they moved to San Francisco.
Act 2, ``The Castro,'' lacks the headiness that accompanied the early '70s and the freewheeling, sexually charged atmosphere in the Castro as it became the gay Mecca of the world. It ends with Milk's election - after several unsuccessful tries - and a vacuous series of thank you's from Moscone.
Act 3, ``City Hall,'' is again more interesting as it portrays the wheeling and dealing that accompanies politics, and of course it also includes the assassinations. Also adding to the interest of this act is its portrayal of White, who is first seen in Act 2 as an ex-cop and ex-firefighter who laments the way the Castro, once the home of blue-collar Irish families, is being taken over by gays. When he is elected along with Milk and several others, he refuses to take part in the schmoozing and deal-making. He holds that he is right and that right will prevail. Hence, he's isolated from his 10 colleagues and finds himself unable to win passage of any issues he supports.
This depiction of White is one of the opera's strongest points, for he has a compelling aria that tells how he feels about the fact that his family will eat beans and franks for Thanksgiving because he doesn't make enough money as a supervisor. Such scenes allow the audience to gain a measure of understanding and perhaps even sympathy for White's motivations even though the subsequent murder scenes show how warped his thinking had become.
The production boasts outstanding performances by its principals, especially baritone Robert Orth as the adult Milk. Orth, who has been with the opera since its premiere, has both the dramatic and vocal prowess to create a totally believable character. One even believes he looks like Milk.
The same can be said for tenor Raymond Very as White. Singing in the Irish tenor style, he's totally convincing in portraying his character's moral rectitude and political rigidity as well as his agony over his financial problems.
Smith is energetically portrayed by Bradley Williams, who has a sweet high tenor that blends well with Orth's baritone in their love duets. Also noteworthy are mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Milk's mother and baritone James Maddalena as the Messenger, who appears in several scenes and plays other roles. It's the Messenger who leads the dead Milk into another realm and compares him to Moses, who led his people to the Promised Land but couldn't enter there himself.
Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove is impressive, especially in her primary role as Anne Kronenberg, who became Milk's campaign manager. Grove has a strong voice and an authoritative stage presence.
Soprano Juliana Gondek also plays several roles. Chief among them is Dianne Feinstein, who was president of the Board of Supervisors when Milk served. Gondek portrays Feinstein as something of a clown, an image that totally belies Feinstein's persona as well as the role she played during that terrible time in 1978. In fact, the opera opens with a recording of her announcement that Milk and Moscone had been killed and that White was the suspect. Feinstein, who became mayor by virtue of her position on the board, provided steady leadership during that time and helped to hold the city together. (She has since become a respected U.S. senator and is considered a leading candidate for California governor in 1998). Hence, Gondek's portrayal, which one assumes is director Alden's choice, does a disservice to Feinstein.
All of the SFO's present Adler Fellows and several recent ones do a good job in their multiple roles. Likewise Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus distinguishes itself vocally and dramatically in portraying all kinds of people. Gabriel Berry's costume designs aid those portrayals. They also capture the spirit of the times. The Gay Day Parade costumes are right-on, complete with the leather-clad Dykes on Bikes and a portly black man dressed like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Heather Carson's lighting is generally effective, although it overdoes the technique of low front lights and strong side lights to cast shadows against the walls. Likewise, Steinberg's set design is generally effective, especially the five closet doors on stage right and the image of Maria Callas that appears during scenes at the opera. (These scenes usually are accompanied by an allusion to Tosca in the orchestra.)
Despite this opera's considerable merits, especially in distilling Milk's life, it still doesn't pack the emotional wallop one might have expected. Perhaps that's asking too much, for the assassination of Milk had much the same impact on the gay community on the San Francisco Bay Area as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the black community or the assassination of President Kennedy on the nation. The theater lobby has a display of reproductions of front pages of San Francisco newspapers reporting on the double murders. These pages are more moving than the opera, perhaps because they are so real, so much a part of that experience for those who were there. One would hope that opera could capture some of that feeling, but Wallace's music just doesn't do the job.
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