During his more than 20-year tenure as general director of Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley has endeavored to present at least one new work each season.
Some of these new operas have been extremely memorable (Akhnaten, Nixon in China) while a few have been downright forgettable (Atlas). Harvey Milk, which premiered last Saturday, has to be considered one of HGO's more successful new work presentations.
Composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie have fashioned an opera that is musically and dramatically interesting and entertaining. Except for a few lapses, it holds the viewer's attention from start to finish of its more than three-hour duration.
The opera traces the life of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected city official, from his boyhood in New York to his 1978 assassination in San Francisco. Although the tone of the opera is serious for the most part, it's punctuated by several outrageously funny scenes that had the premiere night crowd roaring with laughter.
The music is readily accessible and reflects a variety of influences, including minimalism, Broadway show tunes and 1960s rock. There is even a bit of John Philip Sousa-esque march music thrown in. Atypical of late 20th-century operas, the chorus plays a prominent role in this work -- a pleasant surprise for those turned off by the usual lack of ensemble singing in modern operas. The chorus, in fact, provides some of Harvey Milk's more memorable musical moments.
The subject matter may make some regular HGO patrons a bit leery, and granted, Harvey Milk is definitely not Hansel and Gretel. It contains some fairly explicit language and scenes. But if you weren't offended by La Cage aux Folles, you probably won't be offended by Harvey Milk either. The opera is divided into three acts. Act One, "The Closet," focuses mainly on Milk's years as a Wall Street stockbroker and culminates with the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which leads Milk to profess his sexual orientation openly for the first time.
The act starts off slowly, but picks up momentum following a highly charged exchange between Milk and a West German businessman concerning the Holocaust. Act One also contains what is undoubtedly a first for Houston Grand Opera: a wickedly funny chorus line of drag queens doing a 1960s version of the can-can while belting out a bawdy tune.
The opera's best passages are found in the second act, "The Castro," dealing with Milk's career as a gay activist in San Francisco in the 1970s and his election to that city's Board of Supervisors. More than the other two acts, Act Two has the flavor of a Broadway musical. The crowd-pleasing final scene, where placard-carrying supporters of Milk revel exuberantly in his election victory, is somewhat reminiscent of the final scene of the first act of Evita. Another audience-pleasing moment occurs earlier in the act, when Milk proclaims, "I'm the gay Mary Poppins," and floats to the stage floor, using a multicolored umbrella as a parachute. While the tone of the second act is, on the whole, lighthearted, it's not without its dramatic moments as the menacing Dan White, Milk's political archrival and his eventual assassin, makes his first appearance. The generally fast pace of Act Two is interrupted only by a bedroom scene where Milk and his lover, Scott, get bogged down in a tiring discussion of political strategy.
The opera reaches its crescendo in Act Three, when White storms into San Francisco's City Hall and ruthlessly guns down Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their respective offices. The work is extremely effective in building up the tension leading to Milk's savage attack. Particularly compelling is a scene in which a brooding White stares blankly at a television screen showing cartoons while scarfing down the junk food that his lawyers later claimed caused him to go off the deep end.
Harvey Milk concludes with a candlelight requiem for the slain gay activist. While at times moving -- male soprano Randall Wong's solo number is especially touching -- this portion of the opera is overly long and, following the terror of the killings themselves, seems a bit anticlimactic.
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Members of the cast of Harvey Milk, as well as the chorus and orchestra, turn in solid performances. Baritone Robert Orth is totally believable as the idealistic and crusading Milk; equally as convincing is tenor Raymond Very's portrayal of the deeply troubled and uncompromising Dan White. Bass Gidon Saks is also outstanding as the flamboyant George Moscone. One of the more intriguing performances is turned in by soprano Julianna Gondek, who plays a wheeling and dealing Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein was president of the Board of Supervisors when Milk and Moscone were assassinated. A tape recording of her actual voice announcing the slayings in 1978 is heard at the opera's outset. Her depiction in this work is particularly interesting, considering the fact that Feinstein is still active on the political scene and was the recent focus of national attention following her close victory in her race for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
But while the performances succeed, the settings don't, at least not as well. The production could use a more elaborate staging. The set throughout the opera consists basically of two intersecting walls and a sloping floor. Props are brought in to depict various scenes. While this approach is effective in depicting office scenes, it doesn't really work for the street and crowd scenes.
But despite the minimal sets, Harvey Milk, on the whole, has to be considered a success. HGO deserves commendation for having the courage to stage this controversial work and for its continuing efforts to encourage the composition of new operas.
Harvey Milk plays through February 5 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-2787.