Beethoven’s Lone Opera: Was the Maestro Psychic?

Fidelio is the story of love, strife and a cross-dressing woman...a night at the opera just got a lot more interesting.
Fidelio is the story of love, strife and a cross-dressing woman...a night at the opera just got a lot more interesting.
Photo courtesy of Houston Symphony

Is it a parody of our most recent election cycle, or is it an opera? That’s the question brought on by the plot of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, which the Houston Symphony will revive this Friday and Sunday at Jones Hall. To help put that comment into context, the symphony's stage director, Tara Faircloth, describes Fidelio as the story of a very angry man in power, a prisoner who is believed to be innocent, and a woman who dresses as a man.

Yep, this opera — the only one Beethoven ever wrote — is a far cry from boring. Cross-dressers, criminal scandal and politics gone awry are what the maestro had in mind; we’re just not sure he ever thought it would be happening in 2017. Nonetheless, here we are. Despite its seemingly prescient relevance, Fidelio is quite the delight and delivers quite a punch.

“This is a monumental opera, so we’re packing monumental amounts of people on the stage," says Faircloth. "There will be the orchestra, six soloists, a large chorus, video installations and scenic lighting."

To help launch this opera out of the 1800s and into the modern era, Faircloth and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada have added a few extra touches to please contemporary audiences.

“I knew that we wanted something that would be more immediately relevant to our audience, so we cut [Beethoven's original] dialogue, which didn’t give a lot of information, and replaced it with quotes from a narrator that are applicable and enlightening,” says Faircloth.

This substitute narration was drawn from thinkers, poets and revolutionary figures of the past that includes iconic speeches, poetry and literature found in modern history. For example, excerpts from Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., J.R.R. Tolkien and Edna St. Vincent Millay help to fill the spoken parts.

“The music is so inspiring and uplifting, and I thought it would be interesting to find text that was equally inspiring,” Faircloth says.

Reading all of these works is none other than famed stage and television actress — and native Houstonian — Phylicia Rashad. Best-known for her role in The Cosby Show, Rashad also became the first African-American woman to win a Tony Award, in 2004 for her role in A Raisin in the Sun.

The decorated actress’s return to the stage will add a new dimension to Beethoven’s work, which Faircloth says is all part of her master plan.

“I really wanted to have a strong female voice in the narration," she says. "This opera is the story of a lot of people, but it’s very much the story of a woman who is placing herself in danger. I thought, ‘Who are some strong female voices?’ I knew Phylicia was from Houston. She was my No. 1 choice, and I’m delighted that we got her.”

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Speaking of strong women, who else did Faircloth score for this production? Only one of opera’s leading sopranos, Rebecca von Lipinski.

“I have been singing this role since my debut for Garsington Opera in 2009, and have lived with her for quite a while," von Lipinski says. "She forever stretches you in different directions, and she is never boring. I love her so much and the music is so emotional, challenging and so special to me."

For claiming the leading role of Beethoven’s lone opera, that’s not bad. In fact, if we were the betting type, our money would be on the cross-dressing woman.

The Houston Symphony presents Beethoven's Fidelio at 8 p.m. Friday, March 31 and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 2 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7575. Tickets range from $25 to $136.

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