Any cook is familiar with the process of “reduction”. That’s where you simmer the broth, the soup, or whatever, until its volume is reduced by a third, a half, or some such. Thus you intensify the flavor, you make it more savory.
HARVEY MILK, the opera, has undergone that process. It’s been simmering in the pots of several major opera companies since 1995. Its volume has been reduced by a third. And now, as presented by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, it is very, very savory indeed. It’s definitely yummy!
It deals, of course, with the life and gloriously newsworthy death of Harvey Milk, a gay-rights activist and, at the time of his assassination, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
The opera, with music by Stewart Wallace and libretto by Michael Korie, had been jointly commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the New York City Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. It opened in Houston in 1995–and it was three acts and three hours long. A revision (down to two hours) opened in San Francisco in 1996.
Then, for San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, the opera was revised again–downsized for smaller companies. (“Totally rewritten,” says composer Wallace.) But Covid cancelled that scheduled 2020 opening. And now, here at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, that latest version (“the new performing edition”) has had its world premiere.
It was well worth the waiting for.
Now Harvey Milk was a very conventional son of a Long Island Jewish family. He was a “class clown”. His math degree led him first to high-school teaching and then to a job as an insurance actuary in New York. He led a discrete gay life. He took a job on Wall Street where he was quite successful, but he suddenly left it in 1972 to move to San Francisco’s Castro district with his young lover, Scott. They opened a camera shop in this, the gay capital of America.
Harvey, who had campaigned for Barry Goldwater, became a belated hippy. And he quickly became a gay-rights activist. He was ultimately elected by his heavily gay district to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ten months later he was shot to death by a fellow Supervisor.
This Opera Theatre production is co-directed by Sean Curran and James Robinson. They and their design team make it a quite marvelously theatrical, dream-haunted evening.
Wallace’s score is gorgeous. It’s rich and amazingly varied, beautifully dramatic, complex yet totally accessible. Wallace uses many quarter-tones and unusual glissandos to bring dreamy, disturbing qualities to the scenes. Korie’s libretto begins at the end, in Harvey’s City Hall office. On the floor we see a chalked outline of a body; we see Milk at his desk; we see the killing.
Then we are swept back in time, then along through his life. His ghostly mother warns him to beware of men who are different. “This is a world full of Golems!” The Opera House is, to this adolescent boy, a place of wonder-yet a place of fear. Allen Moyer’s set design is superbly flexible as we drift among Milk’s dreams and memories. At the rear, almost unnoticed, is a long, long row of dull gray doors. They are closets. They are closed.
Central Park at midnight is ominously “busy”. A scene in Milk’s apartment (his “walk-in closet”) verges on the surrealistic, with its gaggle of friends of variegated sexualities and perversions. We go to Christopher Street to join the chaotic Stonewall Uprising with rioting choruses of drag queens and dykes. We see the street life in San Francisco’s Castro district. Here the older working-class Irish (and the police) resent the massive influx of gays and their culture; it’s a strange sort of gentrification, but the old residents are being rent-priced out of their homes.
As usual at OTSL the cast is brimming with world-class voices. Baritone Thomas Glass sings the demanding role of Harvey Milk with great conviction and vocal beauty. He’s surrounded by operatic excellence: Elizabeth Sarian as Mama, Mishael Eusebio as young Harvey, Raquel Gonzales as Dianne Feinstein, Xiao Xiao as Henrietta Wong, and Mack Wolz as Anne Kronenberg.
Near the beginning, aloft, in front of a huge dazzling white moon, there appears a quite magical figure in top-hat and tails–also in dazzling white. Is this the Man in the Moon? The program lists him simply as “The Messenger”, but he is, in fact, a bright Angel. Kyle Sanchez Tingzon, a gifted countertenor, sings this role. This Angel drifts in and out of the story, guiding Harvey on his way.
Let me give a bit of particular praise to three performances:
Bass-baritone Nathan Stark does marvelous work with three roles: the flamboyantly gay German, Horst; a tough Irish teamster; and, most especially, Mayor George Moscone. This latter role he fills with wonderfully forceful life as a charismatic, glad-handing politico.
Tenor Alek Shrader sings Dan White, the Irish-American ex-fireman, ex-cop, who subtly dogs Milk throughout the story–and, in the end, kills him. Shrader uses the librettist’s leniency to make White a not entirely unsympathetic character. And his lovely drifts into the classic Irish tenor mode are refreshing.
Tenor Jonathan Johnson sings Scott, Harvey’s lover. Johnson’s voice is, to me, the most remarkably beautiful one in the whole show. It’s sweet and smooth and glowing with power.
Stonewall was a radicalizing moment for Harvey. There, as it were, the scales fell from his eyes (just like St. Paul). There the Angel tells him, “See the place that was promised. I have let you see it with your own eyes, though you may not cross there.” (Just like Moses.) And so it would be.
When we get to the conflict in City Hall there is, for a time, less magic and more simple arguing, but overall this show is utterly engaging.
And at the end all those closet doors are open!
Lighting, by Christopher Akerlind, and projections, by Greg Emetaz, contribute enormously to the drama and the magic of this show. Costumer James Schuette has great fun with all the hippy-dippy clothes of the era and with the wildly celebratory deckings of Gay Pride.
Carolyn Kuan conducts a gifted tranche of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians in a superb musical evening.
The chorus, throughout, does wonderful work.
Don’t miss it. HARVEY MILK continues at the St. Louis Opera Theatre through June 25th.
For more information visit opera.stl.org.
(Photos by Eric Woolsey)