Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Gay Opera?

One of the realities of living in Europe and running a company in the United States is that the production calendar gets somewhat compressed (somewhat being a gross exaggeration). I arrived back on native soil last week and have been body deep in supervising set and costume construction, preparing to rehearse with the choir, prop acquisition, you name it. I am going to take a break from that to write a new entry on "David et Jonathas".

As my previous posts show, there is a lot about this opera that makes it unlike anything else of its time. One particularly compelling aspect is that of the relationship between David and Jonathan, a historical relationship that has for a very long time been held by many to be romantic and even sexual in nature. In deciding to produce this work, one has to decide how to portray the relationship, which side they stand on, if not in relation to the biblical truth, than at least to an the issue of same-sex love in 17th century French society.

Really, there are three temporal locations for this consideration.

The first is biblical. Many scholars argue on both side of this issue. The text of Samuel I and II clearly indicates the primacy of David's relationship with Jonathan. But it isn't that easy to find the context. While this part of Samuel deals largely with the relationship between the two men, and lines such as "love more than that of a woman" abound, the text also indicates that David weds a daughter of Saul and has children with her (and of course we know what happen is Basheba). Some would argue that same-sex romantic and sexual relationships were a norm at the time, and that David's marriage was pursued in order to create heirs (the ancient equivalent to a 501K plan). The answer this question will probably never be known, and both sides make excellent points.

The second temporal consideration is the period in which the work was written, 17th century France. Regardless of the actual nature of the historic relationship, how did Charpentier and his contemporaries view it, and thus portray it. Again, no clear answer emerges. On the one side, the is a lot to be said for the existence of same-sex relationships, in fact an entire culture of such, in baroque Europe. Ellen Harris wrote a noteworthy look at Handel through the context of his secular cantatas. While I'm not sure I buy into her conclusion of Handel as a homosexual, she does establish a tradition for homosexuality during that time. At the same time, writing for a Jesuit college, it seems circumspect to circumspect that Charpenter would be writing a "gay" opera. This is probably unlikely. Instead it seems that a type of male-male relationship existed in the 17th century that does not exist today. A close, largely non-sexual, but extremely intimate relationship. This closeness between men is at least viewed with curiousity if not open dismay today.

Finally there is the here and now. For me this is what is important. We have no idea as to the nature of the historic David and Jonathan's friendship. At the same time Charpentier's "David et Jonathas" could very well have intended to portray a type of male-male relationship unknown today. Instead I have approached the text as organically as possible, trying to react honestly, and I think I have come to the same place most audience member would when encountering this libretto and viewing it as a new modern work, without historical or generative baggage. I have purposely ignored what I know about the historical life David following the death of Saul, as well as what seems the most likely way the first Parisan audience understood this story.
Lines like "despite the harness of my fate, at least I can still tell you that I love you” (Jonathas to Daivd, Act V) and "Lord, I have lost everything that I love, for me all is gone" (David talking about the death of Jonathas, Act V), abound through the piece and I think have a clear implication for the contemporary reader. Just as I am uninterested in baroque staging because we are performing for a contemporary audience, I am also uninterested in the historical or originally intended portrayal of this relationship. Instead I am interested in what will emerge for an audience what the work today, it is in this way that masterpieces rise as phoenixes..

So, yes, for me "David et Jonathas" is a "gay" opera. But seen as such, the work becomes more beautiful for what it is not about rather than what it is about. That David and Jonathan are lovers is not at issue, it is never brought-up, and has no function in the unfolding plot. This a tragic love story, the type almost cliché to opera. The only difference is that the central pair of star-crossed lovers are two men. Because of this the piece is even more breathtaking in its restraint and simplicity. Seeing these two male characters embrace freely on the opera stage is a powerful and moving experience.

Now I am off to rehearse with the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers who will be joining us for the production. Tonight I introduce them to the French Baroque concepts of inégal and ornamentation.
This photo is another one of my favorites from the workshop.


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Terena said...

Well written article.