Singing the praises of a Horton Foote heroine
The late Texas playwright Horton Foote won two Oscars and a Pulitzer Prize. Now, the Houston Grand Opera is adapting one of his plays as a chamber opera.
Famed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has come out of retirement to star as a 90-year-old woman trying to make sense of her turbulent life in "A Coffin in Egypt," which premieres Friday. The company also will present the work March 23 in Wharton, Foote's hometown.
Foote tackled some of life's biggest issues through the character of Myrtle Bledsoe. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Leonard Foglia have made her the centerpiece of the 90-minute work, which rarely takes the spotlight off her.
Myrtle has weathered a life full of trials, and she knows the grave isn't far off. She longs to sort out why things turned out so differently than she imagined when she came to Egypt, Texas, as a rich man's beautiful bride.
Foglia, who also is directing "A Coffin in Egypt," thinks the play's themes are universal.
"What are the ideas Horton is exploring? They're the ultimate questions. 'What was it all about? Why was I here? What were all these mistakes I made in my life? Were they really mistakes, or learning experiences?' "
Focused on the music
Foglia worked alongside Foote in 1998, when the director staged "In a Coffin in Egypt." Since gospel hymns were woven into the play, the two had an African-American church choir record music to be used in the theater.
As Foote called out hymns for the group to sing, Foglia watched the playwright relish the sounds that took him back to his youth.
"He loved music - and church music especially," Foglia says. "That notion of music and hymns and God was a big part of probably everything he wrote."
Foglia was the librettist for the company's mariachi opera, "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon)." When HGO asked him for suggestions about an opera to commission, he remembered the music in Foote's play. The work's meaning-of-life questions also augured for its choice.
"I think everybody, when they reach a certain point in their lives, starts to think about these things," Foglia says.
Like many operatic heroines, Gordon says, Myrtle has been wronged. She has been embittered by decades with a philandering husband. But is he solely to blame? The audience learns that when the two were courting, he was drawn by her beauty; she, by his money.
"Already, we know that there's something other than love at work here," Gordon says.
The right voice
Since debuting with Houston Grand Opera in 1973, von Stade has played roles ranging from the impetuous Cherubino in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" to Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." When she appeared in the company's production of Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" in 2011, she intended it as her farewell to opera. The company threw her a gala retirement party.
Then artistic director Patrick Summers ran into von Stade in California. While they chatted, Summers mentioned he was considering Foote's play as an opera, not even thinking about who would perform the main role, he says. She asked him to send her a copy, then called him to say she thought it was beautiful.
"I said casually, 'Do you want to do it?,' " Summers says. She said yes.
"On my own, I wouldn't have put myself forward for it," von Stade says. "But if someone thinks I can do it, then I'll believe them, and I'll go with it."
Summer says he never doubted von Stade was up to the task.
"When she sang 'Dead Man Walking,' I think she thought the public was so youth-obsessed that ... it was time for her to step aside," Summers says. "That's very different from retiring because you can't perform anymore.
"Her voice is still in remarkable, beautiful condition. And she has all these decades of life behind her as an actress that she will bring to the depth of this part."
Von Stade has been preparing for the massive role for a year. And at 68, despite her experience and acclaim, she's working with a voice teacher.
"I'm getting some of the things I've always been looking for, and I'm so thrilled about it," von Stade says. "I work so hard. ... I'm just loving this exploration."
Von Stade says the character's complexities may prevent her from ever arriving at a simple judgment about Myrtle. As the singer's reactions have evolved, the anguished woman's courage and intelligence have taken precedence.
"I love her now," von Stade says.
Crafting a story
Gordon has loved opera since he was a boy, even sneaking away from studying for his bar mitzvah to see "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera. As a librettist he has made his name with works praised for their lyrical impact. After the 2007 premiere of his "The Grapes of Wrath," based on John Steinbeck's Great Depression saga, the national journal Musical America declared the work "the great American opera."
"A Coffin in Egypt," dominated by one character and accompanied a nine-member instrumental group, is the opposite of the Steinbeck epic.
"If you write for the theater, every piece has its own set of demands," Gordon says. For "A Coffin in Egypt," he and Foglia created new hymns, melding gospel style with their own. Using ideas from Foote's play as their starting point, they crafted arias that let Myrtle muse on her experiences.
"When some people try their hand at opera, where it may go awry is that an aria is a meandering event, rather than a strict piece of architecture," Gordon says. "I like to look at a text and plan it in my head.
"I love what a voice can do. Opera is sort of the architecture of singing. You have to find a way to tell a story - but a story that's about singers. And about singers singing it."
- Steven Brown, Houston Chronicle, 7 March 2014