A Musical Return to a Medical Apocalypse

Went last Saturday evening (June 10) to the New York premier of Péter Eötvös’s opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, by the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The orchestra was conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, and the singers included baritone Andrew Garland as Prior Walter, soprano Kirsten Chambers as the Angel, tenor Aaron Blake as Prior Walter’s boyfriend Louis Ironson, countertenor Matthew Reese as Belize, baritone Michael Weyandt as Joe Pitt, soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner as Harper Pitt, mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle as Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah Pitt, and bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Roy Cohn, with an added vocal trio comprised of soprano Cree Carrico, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel, and baritone Peter Kendall, whose voices were used to repeat and emphasize the characters’ words at important points.

To say that the music and singing were magnificent doesn’t quite give full credit to their combined effect, which approached apocalyptic in creating an atmosphere both tense and menacing, and wholly appropriate to the early years of the AIDS crisis when skin lesions, weight loss, and night sweats for gay men were but the early symptoms of more devastating illnesses to come caused by an unknown agent and leading to a quick death.

Those early years of AIDS are long over, as is the panic the disease created in the gay and non-gay populations alike and the homophobic backlash it unleashed among bigoted antigay American politicians and right-wing religious figures. All the more remarkable, then, that Eötvös, Hungarian-born in 1944 and a resident of Europe for most of his life, was able to capture the nightmare mood of an era long past these days even for those of us who lived through it in the New York City of the 1980s (the setting of both the opera and Kushner’s play).

Angels in America 2

According to The New York Times reviewer Zachary Woolfe, the two-hour Eötvös opera, necessarily slimmed down from the seven-hour Kushner play, is “like a skeleton: elegant, chilly, a bit otherworldly, ultimately unnourishing.” And yet that last word seems to me to miss the whole point of the story. No apocalypse ever nourishes. Apocalypses always devastate. No one in the early years of the AIDS crisis had any knowledge of the medical breakthroughs to come that would eventually save so many lives, and everything—everything—from a gay point of view, an AIDS point of view, seemed hopeless, and very, very scary. The opera’s Stage Director Sam Helfrich gets it exactly right in a program note included in the Playbill when he writes that the opera calls forth “a world of uncertainty . . . wherein characters faced with some of life’s most difficult questions have no clear answers and no idea what’s coming next.”

The time is short to see this opera in this incarnation, there being only four scheduled performances, on June 10, June 12, June 14, and June 16. But for those who have seen it, or will see it, it is an uncanny recreation in modernist music and bare bone stage settings of a time none of us loved living through and no one in his or her right mind would care to see again.

Note: This is the first production of an ongoing series of LGBT-focused work by the New York City Opera scheduled for Gay Pride Month in June of each year aimed at celebrating LGBT contributions to opera. June 2018 will see a production of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain.

 

Photo of the Angel (Kirsten Chambers) revealing herself to Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) at end of First Act of Angels in America. © Sarah Shatz; used with permission.

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