According to the old myth, gays are an overwhelmingly dominant presence in the opera world, although I’ve never found that to be true – quite the contrary. If they were, by now there would surely be more operas with homosexual themes. True, a gay sensibility pervades the stage works of Benjamin Britten, but only as a hidden subtext that many still dispute. The only openly gay characters that immediately come to my mind – at least in operas written before 1990 – are the Countess Geschwitz in Lulu, by Alban Berg (a straight composer), and a male couple in The Knot Garden, by Michael Tippett (a gay composer), and even in these operas, sexual orientation is scarcely a major issue.
So a warm welcome to Patience & Sarah, words by Wende Persons and music by Paula M. Kimper, presented by American Opera Projects and Lincoln Center Festival 98. The opera is based on a 1969 novel by Isabel Miller, which tells of two Connecticut women who meet in 1816 and, despite inevitable opposition from both their families, settle down together, living and farming in upstate New York – a tale loosely based on the real lives of folk-art painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion, Miss Brundage. I can’t resist quoting from Miller’s moving introduction to her book: “Not much is left of them, but we know about their ‘romantic attachment’ to each other, their quiet, peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints – berries and brick dust – the paintings sold for 25 cents to neighbors or bartered to peddlers who carried them all over eastern North America, from Canada to Mobile. And we know our own response. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone from their hill is a crystal ball.”
That perhaps suggests why we’ve had to wait so long for an opera that focuses on a gay relationship. The “crystal ball” that Miller writes of could only be peered into with any degree of honesty and compassion right now, in the comparatively open atmosphere that exists today. Patience & Sarah does precisely that, and in many ways the sheer ordinariness of the basic dramatic premise is what gives the work its underlying strength and appeal. Essentially what we have here is the familiar romantic tale of two people who must confront, cope with, and overcome all the usual obstacles – social class, family enmities, their own doubts and insecurities – in order to find love and live happily ever after. At a time when gays still have much hateful prejudice to face, some will no doubt find such a conventional approach to the subject politically naïve and overly sentimental. Perhaps, but I’m more than willing to applaud this refreshingly upbeat opera which, as Kimper says, aims “to present a hopeful and positive portrayal of lesbian life.”
Of course, writing any opera, especially a first opera, is a tricky business, and Patience & Sarah is not without flaws. For one thing, the disapproving family members remain one-dimensional types whose sudden acceptance of the situation – which sets the scene for a final radiant love duet – scarcely seems credible. Several other knots in the plot are never convincingly untied, but the two protagonists are effectively characterized and contrasted: the well-to-do Patience, introspective, hesitant, and at first rather overwhelmed by the more impulsive Sarah, raised as a tomboy by her less affluent farming family. The fact that we never lose interest in them is a tribute to librettist Persons and her ability to create two real people who, putting the same-sex issue aside for a moment, are dealing with problems that most everyone must face at one time or another.
Kimper’s tuneful score is unlikely to offend tender ears, cast as it is in an idiom inhabiting the mainstream of American opera at its folksiest and most accessible. That also means the occasional turgid patch where the music seems to be awkwardly plowing through a wordy conversation for better or worse, but mostly the setting manages to be song-filled and expressive, attractive qualities brought out by the fourteen-piece chamber orchestra led by Steven Osgood. For those who missed the performances and are curious for a sampling, a duet from Act Two is included on an interesting new Composers Recordings disc devoted to music by American lesbian composers (CRI CD 780), whose varied styles range from conservative to avant-garde, ragtime, and electronic performance art.
Patience & Sarah enjoyed a modest but affectionate production staged by Douglas Moser and designed by Marie Anne Chiment, whose flavorful sets evoked a rural New England long passed. The chemistry between Lori Phillips (Patience) and Elaine Valby (Sarah) seemed just right, and both singers made every musical moment count. The only other character to register in any major way is Daniel Peel, a traveling preacher who encounters Sarah on the road dressed as a boy and makes an unsuccessful pass. Implausible though it may sound, the scene turned out to be perfectly charming, thanks in part to tenor Barton Green’s touching portrayal of the bumbling parson.
Women’s work is a subtheme of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, which invited the German-based ensemble Sequentia to bring its production of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum to New York. A legendary abbess, visionary, and prophetess, the “sibyl of the Rhine” (1098-1179) has never been more in fashion than she is today, 900 years after her birth, a feminist-New Age icon who considered her poetical writings, paintings, and vocal compositions to be revelations rather than intellectual constructs. Ordo Virtutum is Hildegard’s most famous work, a sung morality play in which allegorical figures – Humility, Charity, Chastity, Faith, Mercy, etc. – come to life to assist the human soul in its eternal struggle with Satan.
Led by two American musicologists, Benjamin Bagby and Barbara Thornton, Sequentia is by now an authority on all matters Hildegardian, and the group is already well into a project to record the complete works for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Sequentia’s new disc of Ordo Virtutum is a winner, with singing of shimmering purity over a historically informed instrumental accompaniment, but its staged production at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle emerged as a tedious, static affair that made little use of a potentially striking theatrical space. Perhaps the Hildegurls’s jazz-rock-electronic-fusion version of Ordo Virtutum, on view at the Festival this week, will have better luck in bringing Hildegard back to life.