Full Frontal Opera: Opera Vista's Powder Her Face

Opera Vista Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman recently spent some time sound testing fishing reels. The reels are among the 33 items the percussionist needs for the upcoming production of Powder Her Face. (Other percussion instruments needed for the show include a pop gun, electric bells and a tub of water.)

The show, written by composer Thomas Adès and librettist Philip Hensher in 1995, is the story of London socialite Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, a sort of Paris Hilton figure in her youth. It includes her notorious behavior during her marriage, subsequent scandalous divorce in 1963 and, finally, her slow slide into poverty and obscurity.

The opera is seen by many to be almost as scandalous as the Duchess. One scene shows the Duchess having oral sex with one of her many lovers; in another, there are hints that she's mentally ill. (David Eagleman, local author and neuroscientist, told Subbaraman he suspected the Duchess suffered frontal lobe damage during a fall down an escalator shaft, an injury that would significantly loosen her inhibitions.)

Subbaraman says Opera Vista didn't want to focus on the Duchess's sexual escapades, but rather her dramatic life story.

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"Most productions I've seen are extremely racy and what we wanted to do was to look at the Duchess as human figure," Subbaraman tells us. "We wanted to look at it from the perspective of here was this woman who went through life with people slowly abandoning her. Looking back on it now, it could have been that a lot of this was out of her control.

"We pulled back from the focusing on the scandal of the show, which is hard because the show does have promiscuity and scandalous behavior at its core. I think we show it in a way that's much more elegant, and much more suited to what actually happened to the Duchess."

Musically, Subbaraman says Powder Her Face is one of the most complicated productions Opera Vista has ever tackled in its five-year history. "It's certainly a jump to the next level of shows from where we've been. The music is incredibly complicated but sounds very simple. It's one of those that I listened to on the recording and thought, 'Wow, this is such a great piece!' and then opened up the music and thought, 'Oh wow, is that what it looks like on the page?'"

Subbaraman credits the four-member cast, especially Cassandra Black as the Duchess, for successfully tackling the difficult show. "It's an interesting role because there is one scene which is pretty tough to play for any singer, which is the sex scene. She walked in ready to go, with keen insight as to how to pull that off without it being dirty. There is no nudity on stage, but it's still a tough scene to pull off. This is in some ways more difficult than baring your body, to do an oral sex scene without becoming too graphic."

The other three members -- Kelly Waguespack, Benjamin Robinson and Kyle Albertson -- play multiple roles in multiple styles that sound like everything from traditional opera to a Las Vegas lounge act, often in back-to-back scenes. "That's difficult to do, and even more difficult to do well, but they do," he says.

Controversy and fellatio aside, Subbaraman says this has been a great experience for Opera Vista. "This has been one of the craziest and most fun productions we've ever done. You don't need fishing reels for Mozart!"

Opera Vista performs Powder Her Face at 8 p.m. on November 10 and 11. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, visit www.operavista.org or call 713-581-44442. $20 to $40.

Cassandra Black as the Duchess of Argyll
Cassandra Black as the Duchess of Argyll
Photo by Shannon Langman
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