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In 1995, the Houston Grand Opera debuted Harvey Milk, based on the life of the celebrated former San Francisco city supervisor, gay-rights activist and martyr. The opera was recorded during the San Francisco Opera's 1996 season. Released by the Teldec label, the disc includes revisions made under SFO music director Donald Runnicles and features many of the HGO principals, including Jill Grove, Randall Wong and Robert Orth as Milk. This week, composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie, both New Yorkers, return to Houston to attend the Harvey Milk CD-release party.

In telling Milk's stranger-than-fiction story -- he was assassinated in 1978, along with mayor George Moscone, by fellow supervisor Dan White -- Wallace and Korie reveal how aptly opera can portray the human side of heroism. In a phone interview, Korie explains that he struggled to "find a balance between factual information and operatic structure, and to get beyond people's memories of Milk and previous treatments of his life to re-create it in a more mythic framework that would allow for singing, drama [and] metaphor, and still be historically valid."

Occasionally tweaking time lines, Korie and Wallace let Milk's triumphs break the pall cast by the story's tragic subject matter. At the end of Act One, for example, the politician's decision to come out of the closet coincides with New York City's Stonewall Rebellion. As Milk shatters handcuffs, a raucous celebration breaks out as gay and lesbian rioters battle police and affirm their strength, joy and pride with soaring chants and songs; it's a moment that's accessible even to those who are usually wary of opera.

Korie says that "by the time [Milk] was out of the closet, his mother was gone, and I think it gnawed at him." Another powerful operatic moment occurs during an aria addressed to his mother (and to the gay community), when Milk declares, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let it shatter every closet door." Later in the opera, Korie allows the real Milk to speak for himself, incorporating the supervisor's recorded voice into the scene in which White's fatal shots ring out; eerily and astutely, Milk describes his future killer as "a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed." Korie says the tape "show[s] Milk's awareness of his own myth, that he was going to be killed and that his death had to have meaning. He has had a tremendous impact on the coming-out movement. He inspires everyone, [including] gays and lesbians, to speak up for what [they] believe in, to not be silent."

-- Melissa Jacobs

Harvey Milk CD release: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 25. Crossroads Market, Bookstore & Cafe, 1111 Westheimer, 942-0147. More info: 546-0230.

 
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