World Premiere of Daron Hagen's Opera Amelia

On May 8, 2010, the world premiere of Daron Aric Hagen's opera Amelia, to a libretto by Gardner McFall, took place at the Seattle Opera. Audiences on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon went berserk with wild applause, and it is devoutly hoped that audiences elsewhere in the country soon will have a chance to see this fascinating work.

When dealing with this new composition it is important to note the "back story" that did not find its way into the libretto but which is important nevertheless. This is not a problem we encounter with, say, Il Trovatore where it is by this point irrelevant whether Cammarano modeled the character of Manrico after his late cousin Irving, who wooed and won the toothsome virgin only to lose her to a convent and later debauchery in the fleshpots of the Argentine. By this point Manrico is Manrico. Not so with Amelia.

In a nutshell, the actual facts seem to be these: Librettist Gardner McFall's father was a naval airman serving in the Vietnam theater of operation during the Vietnam War. When he left for his tour of duty he had a wife and young children at home, one of whom was Gardner. Her father, known as Dodge McFall, had catapulted off the USS Bonhomme Richard when his plane was lost at sea. He died from either equipment failure or human error, but assuredly not from enemy fire. Neither his plane nor his remains were ever found. If you happen to have noted certain parallels with the story of the actual Amelia Earhart, you get prescience points. Gardner McFall was a very young girl when her father was lost at sea and presumed dead. She has suffered (and written eloquent poetry about) profound loss at having had her father snatched from her so young, and the enduring sense of the unfinished has haunted her ever since. As one who sustained the sudden loss of a parent 37 years ago, I understand at the most elemental emotional level the well-spring of her pain and grief. And this is the crucial point about sentiment: When you "get it", you are emotionally hooked and will go where the story-teller takes you, whether you want to go there or not. The downside is that if you are not emotionally hooked by the story it is nearly impossible to see it as anything other than manipulative, forced and contrived.

The facts outlined above are not reflected 100% in the opera's libretto, which is entirely fine. This is, after all, an opera, not a documentary. Neither Walter Cronkite nor Chet Huntley are present to narrate the proceedings and certify as to their accuracy. But a knowledge of the facts is helpful in figuring out small, otherwise inexplicable details in the performance. For example, in the preludes to both acts there is a short musical quotation from Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd. I heard this and asked myself what in the devil it was doing there -- and eventually I got it: The composer was paying homage to the librettist's real-life father who died under the circumstances set forth above. The musical quotation was from Britten's Captain Vere: "I was lost on the infinite sea": As, indeed, the real Dodge McFall was.

The plot of the opera concerns Amelia, daughter of the naval airman Dodge. Little Amelia is quite devoted to her father, and her father is utterly devoted to his little angel. Needless to say, his loss (shot down on a mission over Haiphong during the war as the libretto has it) is the crucial event in her life. But as this elaborate variation on My Heart Belongs to Daddy is played out, there is a great deal of action going on around that sentimental core - too much in fact. In addition to this tender domestic story, as are told the tale of Amelia Earhart (who is referred to simply as "The Flier" and who appears on the coolest props in the entire production) the outlines of which are known to all. There is also a retelling of the Icarus myth, which is rather ham-handedly told. The basic argument seems to be "bad things happen when men and women take to the air." The sub-argument seems to be that despite the foregoing proposition, men and women will take to the air anyway. And at the center of it all is Amelia, and her inability to come to grips with the death of her father forms the emotional core of the story.

This is not a plot of Doric simplicity, and efforts to describe it in classically Freudian terms would make for laughable results. But this is an opera libretto, not a case study, and the major story line is well designed to draw in the audience. Most of the audience seemed genuinely involved and just as genuinely moved by the opera's end, as evidenced by many red eyes and moist cheeks.

There are additional sub-plots going on, just to insure that the audience is not too sure as to what is going on. Time, in this opera, is not linear which adds to the uncertainty. There is the issue of Amelia's pregnancy, there is the issue of the trip Amelia and her mother took to Vietnam in the mid-1980's to find out what happened to Dodge and there is a rather nifty mad scene thrown in for good measure. If by this point you are figuring that this opera has every stock element save for a sword fight, an auto da fe and regicide you are not far off.

There are, basically, three things that stop this overly ambitious and all too earnest libretto from collapsing on itself: Extraordinary music, first class direction, and brilliant singers. You are not going to walk out of the opera house humming the tunes, but Daron Aric Hagen's score is well-composed and, in many respects, a work of genius. He tends to write in a more facile manner for the women, but his writing for the men (especially tenor William Burden) is complex and highly effective. The musical interludes that introduce each scene seem to have been written with the idea that at some point they will be stitched into an orchestral suite ("Five Airsick Episodes from Amelia" perhaps?) We have been told that late in the rehearsal process Mr. Hagen pulled a couple of all-nighters to compose additional music for these interludes when the stage needs so demanded (that is, more time was necessary for the scene changes then initially expected, so more music was needed).

Stephen Wadsworth, a veteran of many Seattle Opera productions, is a talented stage director who knows how to keep an audience's interest. In this he has been aided by the astonishingly effective set designs of Thomas Lynch and the equally diverting costume design of Ann Hould-Ward. When assessing a Stephen Wadsworth production, it is well to remember the sage answer provided by Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins to a question posed after a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin. The questioner wanted to know if a particular but of stage business was intentional. "Nothing," Mr. Jenkins replied, "is unintentional in a Stephen Wadsworth production."

This libretto is a mighty tall order that no one, quite frankly, will ever be able to tame (there is just too damned much going on). But Wadsworth comes as close as is humanly possible. Sure, there are times you have to wonder why certain directorial decisions were made (turning Amelia's delivery room/obstetrical suite into something straight out of the Stateroom Scene from "A Night at the Opera" seemed particularly questionable) but in the main he keeps things bouncing along. Still, I had the nagging sense that Wadsworth trusted neither the libretto nor the audience -- small things like insuring that when the issue of duty/honor to the men under command versus duty to family was mentioned, Dodge was in dress whites with a sword on his hip. Despite these essentially trivial misgivings, there is likely no one working on the opera stage today who would have been able to bring it off more effectively than Stephen Wadsworth.

In terms of the singers, William Burden and Kate Lindsey towered over all others, and given the quality of "all others" that's saying quite a bit. Burden, in the role of Dodge, had no difficulties with the occasionally fiendishly hard music Daron Hagen composed, and he always managed to convey the most tender paternal feelings without mawkishness. In his interactions with Amelia, you never once doubted that this was a father. Kate Lindsey sang brilliantly and acted even better, conveying the angst-ridden, hormone deranged Amelia to shattering effect. If her mad scene was not all that it could have been, blame the librettist rather than Ms. Lindsey. Mad scenes are always difficult. In fact, there are few mad scenes in opera that stir the audience's sympathy (admiration for technical prowess is another issue altogether) since it is hard to feel empathy for an hysteric and equally difficult to resist the "good grief, shut up and pull up your socks" response to such scenes unless Gaetano Donizetti was writing them.

Although Nathan Gunn did not take his shirt off in the role of Paul (Amelia's husband) he sang with his accustomed ardor and accuracy. Luretta Bybee acted and sang well. The real surprises were Jennifer Zetlan, who sang the role of "The Flier" and Jordan Bisch who sang the role of Daedalus. Ms. Zetlan has a bright, accurate voice and an acting talent that is winning in the extreme, whereas Mr. Bisch sings with extreme sweetness; however, he needs to work on his acting. Ashley Emerson, who has to be in her mid-twenties at least, was bright-voiced and convincing as the child Amelia. In this opera, there is a need to cast a singer as the "North Vietnamese Political Official" -- the fellow who commits an unspeakable atrocity against an innocent child and who we are to assume orders Dodge killed. In a stroke of genius, someone cast a singer named Karl Marx Reyes in the role. Mr. Reyes gave a riveting performance in the short but pivotal role. Jane Eaglen was "Aunt Helen," and she gets to stand and deliver one of the most moving arias in the work. Ms. Eaglen still has the voice and the lung power, despite the fact that in this aviation-centric opera the airship she most calls to mind came to woe in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz is making a tolerable claim to being the Richard Bonynge of our era. On many occasions over the weekend I wondered what a really good conductor would do with the music, instead of Schwarz's literal, hard-charging, straight-forward, rhythmically lax reading. I understand all of the unspoken reasons why he is in the pit, but this is a score that any number of conductors who have appeared at the Seattle Opera in the past would handle vastly better, and which Der Ring des Nibelungen veteran Robert Spano would absolutely set on fire. If a premiere's conductor can ever be said to set forth the definitive interpretation of a work, I can assure you that this was not it.

So what is the fate of this opera? On the evidence of two performances (and two dress rehearsals) in Seattle, the audiences love it. I suspect that other opera companies that take a chance on it will have similar success. Yet as is often the case with new works, they must be considered to be works in progress until such time as the composer finally says "That's it." If this was a work of Verdi or Bellini, the suggestion would be "The Naples version might well be an improvement."