By Heidi Waleson
NEW YORK – Lately, whenever someone asks me about the best new opera I’ve seen recently, my answer is Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home, now at the Public Theater in New York. Fun Home isn’t actually an opera. It’s a 90-minute musical, amplified, with a cast of nine singers (three of them children) and six instrumentalists. Yet it delves deep and has extraordinary emotional resonance. Its impact is all the more remarkable when you compare it to the big opera premiere of the season, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met, a grand spectacle, which got huge resources and had no visceral impact at all.
On the surface, there are similarities to these pieces. Both deal with contemporary subjects. Fun Home, based on the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, zeroes in on the confluence of two seismic events: Alison comes out as a lesbian at college and, a few months later, her father, a closeted gay man, commits suicide by walking in front of a truck. Two Boys is based on a true story from 2003: by adopting various online personalities in Internet chat rooms, a teenaged boy manipulates an older boy into killing him.
Both pieces are non-linear. In Fun Home, three splendid singing actresses play Alison at different ages (child, college student, adult), and the story skips around in time; Craig Lucas’ libretto for Two Boys starts with the stabbing and then uses flashbacks to unravel the mystery of what happened.
But there they part company. Two Boys is about an idea – the effect of the early Internet on human interaction – not people. It is plot-driven, and unfolds like a chilly, clockwork mystery story. Brian, the duped boy, is a befuddled adolescent; the motivations of Jake, the younger boy, sung by a boy soprano, are tantalizing but musically unexplored. (There is a gay theme, but it is played down in favor of the mystery.) Muhly gives all the introspection to the character of the detective in charge of the case (several slow, shapeless arias), but she has no real stake in the outcome, so we don’t care about her. The only character who seems real is Jake’s adoring mother, and her part is tiny. Muhly builds some tension with jittery orchestral minimalism, and his aleatoric choruses create a spooky, iridescent shimmer that suggests the mysterious allure of the early years of the Internet, but the piece has no soul.
In contrast, the music of Fun Home gets under its characters’ skin. Tesori and Kron drilled down into the emotional maelstrom of the book and fearlessly put those feelings right on the surface. The show is about a woman looking back, longing to understand her father, trying to draw her history so that she can make the connection with him that never happened when he was alive. The music examines this quest from every angle. Early in the show, Small Alison and her two brothers create a hilarious, rock-‘n’-roll-inspired singing advertisement for the family funeral-home business. It’s so totally inappropriate, yet so exactly what children are like, that it makes you squirm and laugh at the same time.
Medium Alison’s coming-out moment is just as uninhibited: in post-coital exuberance, she explodes in a show-stopping number that begins, “I’m changing my major — to Joan!” A joyous waltz, it holds nothing back. But there’s sorrow to come, as one revelation leads to others. Alison’s mother bitterly recounts the painful history of her father’s clandestine gay affairs. And in the show’s most searing number, Alison goes for a drive with her father. At first, Medium Alison, home from college, is in the car, but she’s replaced by the Adult Alison who sings the clipped, nervously repeated phrases: “Telephone wires” … “at the light, at the light, at the light,” as she relives the moment, and yearns back over the years for her father to speak, to acknowledge her and the bond of their sexuality. He never does, and it’s heartbreaking.
Tesori is currently at work on her first “official” opera, which is being developed through the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, which gave birth to Two Boys. It’s an expansion of A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, a one-act piece about the tempestuous marriage of Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey, with a libretto by Tony Kushner, that was done at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2011. I remember it as engaging, but nowhere near as powerful as Fun Home.
Opera gives a voice to feelings that are too strong for words alone, but too many composers working today don’t get that. Instead, they put a story to music, and the music, however well-crafted, seems beside the point. In Fun Home, you feel that those people had to sing those songs to express their joy, bitterness, or longing. I hope that Tesori will keep channeling whatever it was that put that pure emotion on stage and not get lost in the grandiosity that can overtake composers when they are writing Opera, especially for the Met.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of U.S. and international publications.