How Local Opera Company LOLA Made the Play Lardo Weeping Sing
Peter Stopschinski’s 17-year journey to bring Terry Galloway’s outsized, outspoken agoraphobe to the stage
You've heard that "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings"? Well, that phrase will take on a whole new meaning this week when a fat lady like none you've seen hits the operatic stage, thanks to Austin company LOLA.
That's not body-shaming. When the opera you're talking about is titled Lardo Weeping, the corpulence of the lead character is part of the point. Indeed, as playwright/performer Terry Galloway envisioned her, the character's too, too sullied flesh is integral to what happens to her. Dinah LaFarge is as outsized as she is outspoken – two qualities that cement her status as an outsider – and as this intellectually advanced but penniless agoraphobe rails about the state of the world from inside her apartment, she's eventually driven to tear away parts of her body, to r-r-rip off that fat in what Galloway calls "a literal striptease." Which sounds appalling, but ever since Lardo Weeping premiered in Austin in 1987, Galloway has played Dinah in a padded suit with Velcro securing strips of her "skin," which gives her act of self-mutilation a surreal, even comical quality, especially when it exposes an unseen object: an American flag inside an arm, a phone secreted below the belly. The fabric also lets Dinah restore herself, as she ultimately does; she literally pulls herself apart and puts herself back together.
Seeing this can make a lasting impression on a person. Ask Peter Stopschinski. The local composer and musician was first exposed to the show in 2002, when the Rude Mechs brought Galloway back to Austin – she'd moved to Florida years earlier – to perform Lardo as part of its Throws Like a Girl series, and it stuck with him. Galloway's "intensely energetic performance," he recalls, "was like watching a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon for an hour and 45 minutes. She just tore the stage up." There was Dinah, waving her copy of the Weekly World News and "spouting off opinion after opinion," he adds, "and I remember being tempted to think she was crazy, except I often agreed with her." Stopschinski felt inspired to set the piece to music and asked for a script and a video of the performance.
Fast forward to 2016, when LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists) had established itself as a force for music in town. Now, it was ready to commission an opera from an Austin composer, and Stopschinski got the call. LOLA Executive Producer Liz Cass recalls them kicking around various ideas, then Stopschinski hit on Lardo Weeping. To give Cass and Artistic Producer Rebecca Herman a sense of the show's operatic potential, he "took the audio from Terry's performance and pitched all of her spoken dialogue as if [it were] one very long recitative. Her delivery is incredibly operatic, which paved roads to musical form. We were all in agreement immediately."
Meanwhile, Galloway was in London, oblivious to what was happening with her play. While her wife, Donna Marie Nudd, was teaching at the Florida State University campus there, Galloway was "just hanging out – walking all over the city, meeting friends for endless high teas, and at night getting gussied up to see every theatrical thing that moved." She describes herself as being "in a contented lull. On particularly idle afternoons, I would fret a little, worrying that the universe might not have any more happy surprises for me up its sleeve." Then the universe let drop from its sleeve a happy surprise in the form of an email from Stopschinski. He introduced himself and told her he'd been commissioned by LOLA to write a short opera and what he wanted to write was an adaptation of Lardo Weeping.
The idea appealed to Galloway immediately. "I've always envisioned Dinah as a kind of female Falstaff, and he's one of the most comically operatic characters in all of Shakespeare. And I was newly hearing then" – thanks to cochlear implants – "and educating myself in sound – listening to every kind of music I could, including opera. So, of course, I thought an operatic take on Lardo would be a hoot."
Was she at all daunted by the prospect of paring her dramatic script into a libretto?
"Here's the real joy: I didn't have to. Apparently, I'd already done my part. Peter was taking the poems verbatim and putting them to music. At least, that's how he so graciously presented it to me. I suspect there's a lot more to it than that. I know there is a lot more to it than that. But the original poems are there. And a lot of the original language is there. And Peter has been doing the hard work of translating and molding all that into lyric operatic form. I didn't want to hinder him as he adapted one into the other. He needed the freedom to musically do what he envisioned doing."
Without active involvement in the work of adapting Lardo, Galloway says she forgot about the opera. "Well," she amends the thought, "it was always there chittering away in the reptilian recesses of my brain – but it was more like a fleeting, happy thought." Then, in 2018, she received another communique from Stopschinski, advising her that LOLA was planning a workshop production and asking her to sign a contract. "I laughed with joy ... and then asked for more money," she says.
In the email, Stopschinski also informed Galloway that he'd been writing furiously, a fact Cass could attest to. She was closely eyeing all the material being churned out by the composer, not just in her capacity as a leader of LOLA but also as the singer who would slip into the ample form of Dinah LaFarge. She found the work to be new in every way. "Much of the music is on the verge of familiar, but is really like nothing I have heard or sung before," Cass says. "The first time I heard the score, I thought, 'This is brilliant! How am I going to sing it?' But we've been working together a long time. Peter knows my voice well, and through the wisdom and skill in his composing, the music winds up fitting like a glove. It's not without its challenges, mind you. ... At one point, he has me going from a B flat below high C to the G below middle C, so about a 2.5 octave interval. He's nuts! It really is a great sing, though. He has a magical way of pulling everything out of his artists, but because there is so much joy, you almost never know how hard you're working."
Cass finds Galloway's brainy, brassy shut-in both challenging and, pardon the pun, enormously appealing: "Dinah is outrageously human, making it impossible not to connect with her. In this role, I feel it's my job to try and keep up with her as best I can, and that is incredibly rewarding as a performer. I almost can't catch her tail! She is so wildly intelligent, conflicted, regimented, and not at exactly the same time. She's funny on purpose, she's funny by accident. She's totally softhearted, and I think her soft heart comes out sideways and surprises even her at times. She fights hard to justify her choices, her existence, and just for the purpose of momentary peace of mind. Exploring her world is like being in a crazy candy forest with new treats and discoveries at every turn. I keep singing through segments and thinking, 'What just happened, how did we get here?'"
Cass has been eager for the arrival of Galloway, who was finally set to arrive in Austin at the start of this week so she could brainstorm and provide feedback in the days before the two-week workshop version of Lardo Weeping opens. "I can't wait to have her here engaged in our rehearsal process!" she says. "I wonder what happens when two Dinahs meet in a cozy little apartment surrounded by back issues of the Weekly World News."
Lardo Weeping runs March 9-16, Sat., March 9, 7pm; Sun., March 10, 2pm; Wed.-Fri., March 13-15, 7pm; and Sat., March 16, 2pm, at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale #122. For details, visit www.lolaaustin.org.