Austin Opera Takes Aim at the Election With Its Adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate
Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell shoot to thrill in their opera based on Richard Condon's Cold War classic
In this most unconventional of election years, why not have an unconventional opera, one that speaks directly to American politics and also to the fear and paranoia that have become common tools in garnering votes and power? Believe it or not, The Manchurian Candidate – yes, that Cold War thriller about conspiracies, brainwashing, and a murderous coup d'etat on the campaign trail – has been adapted into operatic form by librettist Mark Campbell and composer Kevin Puts (former teacher of composition at the Butler School of Music), and it arrives in our politically minded city seven weeks before U.S. citizens choose their next president, courtesy of Austin Opera.
The company is opening its 30th season with a semi-staged performance of Puts and Campbell's The Manchurian Candidate, fully mindful of the closeness of Election Day. AO Artistic Director Richard Buckley has spoken of his desire for the company to explore the operatic repertoire beyond the staples of the 18th and 19th centuries, and programming newer works – and specifically newer American works – enhances for audiences a sense that opera is still a living art form and one that's relevant to people in this country today. Certainly, an opera that centers on a contentious battle for the presidency, on the manipulation of war heroes for political gain, and on a relentless drumbeat of sloganeering about outsiders and enemies invading our homeland more than qualifies on the latter count.
Curiously enough, when Campbell first saw the 1962 film of Richard Condon's novel – the juicy, eerie version directed by John Frankenheimer, with Laurence Harvey as the all-American veteran who gets reprogrammed into a Communist sleeper agent/assassin and Angela Lansbury as his ice-cold, creepy mom/Commie handler – he thought, "This would make a good opera," and he wasn't even writing opera librettos at the time. But once he started, the notion of a Manchurian Candidate opera remained stuck in his head, to the point that in 2010, Campbell asked his agent to check on the availability of the rights for an operatic version. Though he worried that the publisher might be reluctant to have the material adapted that way, McGraw-Hill and the Condon estate turned out to be very receptive. That was about the time that Campbell and Puts were collaborating on their first commission for Minnesota Opera, Silent Night, which retells the story of the famous Christmas truce between enemy soldiers on a World War I battlefield. The work, which led to a Pulitzer Prize in Music for Puts, was such a success that Artistic Director Dale Johnson immediately sought to engage the pair on another project. At a meeting in 2011, they were batting around ideas, and Campbell mentioned The Manchurian Candidate. Puts' reaction: Wow.
As the composer put it in an interview before the work's 2015 premiere, "It just felt right on the heels of Silent Night – a political thriller, something that's fast-paced and different, that has a sort of American edge to the music." The material would let the team "really write an opera that jolts audiences," that "wouldn't let the audience breathe," he added in another interview. "I wanted people on the edge of their seats."
The opera as thriller was something new – not only for its creators but for the art form itself. Oh, opera has always traded on tension, especially in its tragedies, and Lord knows, it's piled up plenty of bodies onstage through the years. But to follow the structure of the modern thriller – opening in a state of heightened tension and ratcheting that up all through the story to the bitter end – that was groundbreaking. And a difficult challenge for the composer.
"It's a thriller, so you don't want to let up," Puts noted in a promotional interview for Minnesota Opera. "In a thriller on film, you can do that without music sometimes. Constantly singing, constantly having music – thick, rich, fast accompaniment – can be exhausting, so we have to find ways to thin that out so the heart is still racing throughout the whole piece, but the ear is not overwhelmed with sound."
Puts accomplished this in part by weaving into the perpetually fraught score, thick with the sort of ominous pulsing we know from suspense films, strains of other familiar musical styles: a march in the manner of John Philip Sousa, a snatch of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a baroque quartet, a shot of jazz, a bit of bluegrass. He also finds a way into the conflicted mind of its haunted hero, Raymond Shaw, and helps the audience see him as more than just a pawn in this sinister plot. Campbell told online news source MinnPost that Puts deserved the credit for that: "It's really Kevin's genius that made Raymond more sympathetic. We hear things in his music that I couldn't write in words. You hear the sadness and pain in Raymond's soul much more in the music than you do in the words." But Puts notes how he takes inspiration from his musical partner's work: "It all comes through my reaction to the libretto. Raymond is holding on to hope, to Jocie, his girlfriend. Everything in music is about harmony, about collections of notes and how those collections move from chord to chord. You can encapsulate romance and sadness and anger in a short amount of time if the harmony's right."
When The Manchurian Candidate premiered, critics called it "elegantly jarring" and "thrilling," comparing it favorably to Condon's novel and Frankenheimer's film. For Austin Opera's regional premiere, audiences will be able to enjoy some of the stars of that production, notably soprano Brenda Harris, reprising her role as Eleanor Iselin, the controlling mother of Raymond Shaw; and bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi as her spouse, Sen. Johnny Iselin. Grammy Award-winning baritone David Adam Moore will star as Shaw, and tenor John Lindsey will play Capt. Ben Marco. Alison Moritz, who assistant directed the Minnesota Opera premiere, directs the semi-staged production, for which Greg Emetaz has created the projection design.
The Manchurian Candidate will be performed Sat., Sept. 17, 7:30pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.austinopera.org.
Upstaging the Pols
Austin Opera's The Manchurian Candidate isn't the only show in town that has its eye on the election. Several arts groups are actively programming political material in September and October. Here are some shows you might catch before casting your ballot.