In a pre-curtain speech before Wednesday night’s performance of Péter Eötvös’s opera of Tony Kushner’s gripping Angels in America, Michael Capasso, general director of New York City Opera, announced this production would mark the beginning of a City Opera initiative to produce one opera each June Gay Pride Month with an LGBT theme.
That certainly got my motor going.
There is actually a lot of operatic material that can fit into an “LGBT theme”—all those Benjamin Britten operas (Billy Budd, Paul Bunyon—two all male operas); Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk; my friend Paula Kimper’s Patience and Sarah; Ricky Ian Gordon, and all sorts of Hanz Werner Henze. Still, Angels in America was a fabulous place to start.
Librettist Mari Mezei has cut Kushner’s two-night drama which weighs in at more than 7 hours into a single two-and-a-half-hour, very realized opera. There were moments when Kushner kills all action with rambling, politically correct screeds I found hard to sit through: they are basically cut out. Instead what has happened is that Péter Eötvös has given us scenes of heart-grabbing ritual, and the kind of extreme, sometimes even “big” intimacy that only opera can do.
I found the beginning difficult—with a woman in “trousers” doing an Orthodox rabbi at the funeral for Louis Ironside’s grandmother; but I found it so in the play as well. There is the “reveal” when Prior Walter, the ur-WASP, tells Ironside he has AIDS—then things start to snap into place as Roy Cohn, sung wonderfully by Wayne Tigges, pops up. Kushner has made Roy Cohn—one of the slimiest men ever to do a behind-the-scenes curdle in American politics, into one of the great stage characters, and Tigges brings him off big-time. Cohn’s presence gives the opera complete relevance today: He was Donald Trump’s best friend and boyhood mentor, Trump’s own reptilian Falstaff, and now Cohn is coming back for more. In his first appearance on stage, on a phone making one of his endless knife-to-the-throat-and-balls deals, he sings that “Everything is collapsing”; “lies are in the air” and “truth impossible” to find.
You got it, Mr. Cohn. Things could not get more real, and yet also more frighteningly sad—because this was all really happening: The early AIDS crisis eating people alive with something they could barely whisper about. Cohn, once infected, says he can’t possibly have AIDS because AIDS is a disease of “homosexuals and drug addicts,” and he’s neither—because homosexuals are powerless. “They can’t even get a piss-ant equal rights bill passed.” They know no one. They have no friends. And he is not in that crowd. No, sir. He’s in Donald Trump’s.
I kept wanting in Part One a real aria, something that would stop traffic. It didn’t happen—but it does in the second. What I got though were moments when time itself stops in the mesmerizing motion of ritual, action, and singing. On the negative side, I thought the music was too Alban Berg Lulu, but then you have the question of what else would you have? How else can you tell what Hell these people are in, and what can save them?
The saving comes at the climactic end of Part One when Prior drops his hospital gown and the Angel comes down in one heart-stopping, exquisitely lit moment. Everything that Kushner had wanted in his hallucinatory play is here; you could have knocked me over with a feather.
The second part is actually better than the first, the opposite I thought of Kushner’s play. Here we have these aria moments, especially between Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, sung beautifully by Sarah Beckham-Turner who manages to capture Rosenberg’s working class New York-Jewish accent while singing and being both vengeful and poignant. The whole cast of this production was excellent, including Andrew Garland ripping his way through Prior Walter; Kirsten Chambers as the Angel; Sarah Beckham-Turner doubling in the thankless role of poor Harper Pitt; Michael Weyandt as her gay Mormon husband Joe Pitt; Aaron Blake as Louis Ironside; and Matthew Reese who is all over the place as a male nurse and a lying travel agent called—what else?—“Mr. Lies.” Also, stage direction by Sam Helfrich and lighting by Derek Van Heel were excellent.
There were times when Angels in America reminded me of certain metaphysical Russian operas where dreams, hallucinations, and ecstatic visions are made emotionally real through that most abstract of the arts, music. I was not crazy about the ending of the opera, but I felt let down with the ending of Kushner’s Part Two, also. Maybe it’s just the sad fact that this story is so gripping—with its Mormon mythologies, knightly compacts between queer men, and revelations that can bring you to tears because it’s about death stalking everyone—how can you end it? Eötvös and Mezei do it at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, bringing the stone “Angel of the Waters,” who now exists in queer history because she was sculpted by Emma Stebbins, a fairly open lesbian sculptress, directly into our waiting hearts.
The truth is, suddenly, I didn’t want it to end. And that is always the best thing you can say about anything, including life.
I hope at some point New York City Opera will revive this production. It needs to be seen by a lot more people. It will only be shown one more night, Friday evening, June 16, 2017, at 7:30 PM. Rush to see it.
Award-winning writer and gender-rights pioneer, Perry Brass has published 19 books, including poetry, novels, short fiction, science fiction, and bestselling advice books (How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, The Manly Art of Seduction, The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love). A member of New York’s radical Gay Liberation Front, in 1972, with two friends, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, the first clinic specifically for gay men on the East Coast, still operating as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. His dystopian futurist novel Carnal Sacraments has recently been translated into Italian and Spanish. It proves that there are angels in the world, too, even outside America.