The new opera Oscar, about the demise of Oscar Wilde - poet, playwright, aesthete, wit - arrives Friday at the Academy of Music courtesy of Opera Philadelphia, and at an uncertain juncture: Though its authors and cast resolutely stand behind it, and the piece had good audience support at its 2013 Santa Fe Opera premiere, critics were underwhelmed.
The 1895 trial for "gross indecency" that left Wilde jailed for two years and a broken man, dead at 46, is considered one of the great tragedies of British literature. Still, there were complaints about Oscar - Wilde came off as too saintly, the opera was too verbose, it seemed derivative of Britten's Death in Venice, with an older gay man whose love object was played by a nonspeaking dancer (even though Wilde's real-life lover, young Lord Alfred Douglas, or "Bosie," was hardly the silent type).
The natural reaction to such reviews could have been immediate extensive revisions. Instead, composer Theodore Morrison stood back and let the piece rest: "I decided not to rewrite anything for several months. I tried to imagine how we would start over, with the same music, but with a different attitude."
The starting point was that the original wasn't wrong. "A lot of the changes were about making it more itself, bringing out all the things we always wanted to bring out, but more so," said director Kevin Newbury. "It's gotten sexier. We're being less careful."
"In Santa Fe . . . I was moved, and the majority of the audience was moved," said countertenor David Daniels, who plays the title role. "But this is musical theater. These things need to happen."
Oscar had two workshops, but the operatic process is far from that of Broadway, where musicals are developed over weeks of previews that allow much trial and error.
Though Morrison, 76, has a multidecade composing career behind him, Oscar is his first opera. It grew out of his knowing Daniels at the University of Michigan, where Morrison was director of choirs and the young countertenor was a chorister. Morrison later composed the song cycle Chamber Music, which Daniels, 48, has sung for years in recitals around the world.
The shock of Oscar criticism, Morrison admits, "was difficult for me." But he was buoyed by testimonials from audience members who sought him out personally - some of them parents of gays - to say how important the experience had been for them. And seasoned opera denizens around him knew not to get out the wrecking ball. In this, the most multifaceted of all theatrical mechanisms, a good diagnosis doesn't come easily, and seemingly hopeless problems have surprisingly small solutions. Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters got a lukewarm reception in New York, but was transformed in Philadelphia with incremental changes and a redirected key scene. Margaret Garner, in contrast, underwent more radical changes en route to Philadelphia, yet was less compelling here than at its Detroit premiere.
Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan habitually takes a hands-off approach. "I never lost confidence in the piece," he wrote in an e-mail. "I did think that the work could benefit from some revisions to tighten the piece and create more dramatic impact."
Oscar now begins differently. Though there was always the tension of the audience's knowing Wilde was headed to prison, but his believing himself invincible, the opera now starts at the height of his fame at the opening of Lady Windermere's Fan, before the "gross indecency" accusations.
The actual language of the libretto is now less stylized, more direct. Gone is an apparent quotation from Bach's St. Matthew Passion when Christ asks God why has he been forsaken. One overly long scene has been streamlined, though in the alchemistic world of opera, shorter doesn't always mean quicker.
The Death in Venice parallels are still there - but they were never intentional. "I didn't really know that opera. I'd seen it once on TV," said Morrison. "Now I've seen it a few more times, and I love it. But that's not where these ideas came from."
Though the staging and production are basically the same as in Santa Fe, director Newbury isn't consulting his past notes and frankly says he doesn't remember previous details.
For his part, Daniels is striving for a more vital sense of interaction with whoever else is onstage, including his lover, played by a dancer who assumes many disguises. In contrast, Newbury is going for something dreamier: "It's gotten stranger and more ambiguous in terms of who is there and not there."
No doubt the cast now has a bit more objectivity: In Santa Fe, emotions were raw and the sense of mission more intense. Initially, the openly gay Daniels couldn't help revisiting a 1990s incident in his hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., when he was beaten in a mall parking lot, stripped of most of his clothes, and left to drive himself to an emergency room to have eight stitches in his head.
"In the opera, when the townspeople call Oscar a bugger and a sodomite, there's no question that memory bubbled up in me, because the words screamed in my face [in Spartanburg] were 10 times worse," said Daniels. The assailants "were found, and they were all in our U.S. military. I didn't want to go to court. I just wanted it to go away."
Said Newbury, who also is gay: "This is a very candid thing to talk about, but we're open books anyway: You don't see our stories onstage," he said. "The weight of telling that story about a love between two men . . . maybe made us too reverent or respectful. This time, we're not afraid of the ugly side of the relationship."
Certainly, the opera comes at a moment of critical mass for Oscar Wilde awareness. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia currently has an exhibition of rarely seen Wilde materials titled Everything Is Going on Brilliantly: Oscar Wilde and Philadelphia through April 26. The Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3 is premiering Philadelphia playwright Michael Whistler's Mickle Street (Feb. 17 to March 8), a fictional take on Wilde's Camden meeting with the aging poet Walt Whitman.
The issues around Wilde's trials also were raised, in a later generation of British history, by the current film The Imitation Game, about the brilliant British code breaker Alan Turing, who was arrested for then-illegal homosexual activity, chemically castrated, and driven to suicide in 1954.
It's no surprise that Daniels hopes the Philadelphia production, which will be revisited by opera producers who saw the Santa Fe incarnation, will yield the ticket that takes Oscar "across the ocean."
"In some ways, the Oscar Wilde trials set gay rights forward decades for what he went through," said Newbury. "But it hasn't changed in many parts of the world today. Many people are still killed and imprisoned for their sexuality."
"Oscar" is at the Academy of Music Feb. 6, 8, 11, 13, 15 - MORE INFO