By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK — New York City Opera, v. 2.0, staged Hopper’s Wife, a chamber opera by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie, as its second production since emerging from bankruptcy. The imaginative riff on two cultural icons of the mid-20th century made for an entertaining and engaging evening that augurs well for the new-old company’s role in New York’s musical life.
For 70 years, New York City Opera was an indispensable player on the local music scene. Founded in 1943, “the people’s opera” provided a home-grown foil to the Metropolitan Opera, presenting both traditional and innovative operatic repertoire at affordable prices and featuring American singers and composers. But a long string of managerial and financial mishaps led to the company’s departure from Lincoln Center in 2011, and NYCO declared bankruptcy three years later.
After protracted negotiations and legal maneuvering, hedge fund manager Roy Niederhoffer acquired the name and assets of the bankrupt company. In January 2016, under the general directorship of Michael Capasso, the curtain rose on NYCO’s reincarnation with a simple production of Tosca played in a 1,200-seat theater near Lincoln Center with a rotating cast of young singers and featuring the original set designs from the 1900 Rome premiere. It wasn’t a great success, and prompted renewed questions about NYCO’s future.
Hopper’s Wife represented a different approach, that of innovation, and it sold out four performances April 28-May 1 in the 200-seat Harlem Stage on the campus of City College. The newly reconstituted company shares a niche with such smaller companies as LoftOpera and Chelsea Opera. This slimmed-down operation offers new talent and fresh repertoire; the reduced scale is a comedown from the company’s history, but it’s closer in spirit to NYCO’s origins and provides a base to build on with less financial risk.
A co-production with Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera, where it premiered in 1997, Hopper’s Wife is a mash-up of biography and fiction, a pop-culture fantasy imagining the American realist painter Edward Hopper married to actress-turned-gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper.
Hopper (1882-1967) was married for 43 years to Josephine Nivison, herself a painter as well as his main model. The couple’s relationship was stormy, according to Gail Levin’s 2007 Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, which drew on Nivison’s journals to describe their difficult domestic life. In Hopper’s Wife, the bleak isolation expressed in paintings like Nighthawks is brought to life onstage, where the artist mostly ignores the women to concentrate on his drawing, and on his bottle.
Hopper’s Wife avoids the plodding chronology of many biographical operas by presenting a quintet of set pieces that focus on character and give each singer the chance to strut their stuff. Andreas Mitisek’s direction is straightforward, with a small playing space and minimal props in front of a scrim that served as a screen for video projections (by Sean Cawelti) and hid the 10-piece chamber orchestra.
In the opening tableau, Hopper is sketching his young blond model Ava (based on the young Ava Gardner), who has fled from the sordid Hollywood studio system. He persuades her to remove her peignoir with a flowery speech about creativity, leading to what must be the longest full frontal nude scene in all of opera. Mrs. Hopper returns from a shopping trip chattering blithely about her outing until she stumbles upon the two and bitterly realizes that she has been replaced as Hopper’s muse.
In the second scene, “Hat Trunk,” Mrs. Hopper flashes back to different periods of their life together as she tries on old hats from a trunk; we learn the couple’s history and see how the marriage has become more remote over time, as Hopper’s artistic obsession takes on a quasi-autistic dimension. In the pivotal third tableau, “Catfish,” Mrs. Hopper paints Ava, who reminisces in a bluegrass sing-song and in coarse detail about the indignities of the Hollywood casting couch, as distasteful to her as the catfish she grew up eating in the South. When Hopper discovers his wife squandering his expensive supplies on her untalented daubings, he stomps on her painting in a rage. Both Ava and Mrs. Hopper decide to leave for Hollywood — “Want a ride?” asks Mrs. Hopper. Left alone, the artist remembers a porno film he once saw; he is more aroused by the vibrant colors than by the sexual acrobatics he recounts in crude terms.
But the drive from Cape Cod to California is no Thelma-and-Louise joy ride, and the women go their separate ways. In “Hollywood,” Mrs. Hopper, unable to find work, takes in a movie and is shocked and envious to see Ava’s name in the credits. Behind the scrim, Ava, now a raven-haired starlet in a slinky black gown, croons a torch song. Mrs. Hopper borrows Ava’s salacious stories about Hollywood to sell herself as a purveyor of gossip, with scoops that become increasingly strident as her hats grow larger. After Hopper dies, Hedda returns to Truro, determined to destroy the early nudes that would threaten her reputation as a guardian of Hollywood morals. She is challenged by Ava, fresh out of rehab, who considers Hopper’s early nude portrait of her the only real piece of art she has ever been involved in. The ending falters but doesn’t destroy the evening’s impact.
Wallace’s music uses a jazz-tinged idiom, with recurrent themes to knit together the threads of the narration. Sensitive instrumental timbres evoke cinematic images. The vocal writing is skillful in its treatment of prosody and shows off the voices; unfortunately, the volume and timbre of the wind writing made the intricate text difficult to understand, especially without surtitles. James Lowe conducted the score with clarity and flow.
The three cast members were talented and seasoned performers with solid regional experience. As Ava, Melanie Long had both the brassy timbre for her bluegrass lament about the rigors of Hollywood and a chanteuse purr, as well as a fetching physique du role. Justin Ryan as Hopper conveyed the artist’s arrogance and detachment in a burnished baritone, with excellent diction.
But the evening belonged to Elise Quagliata’s Mrs. Hopper. Her vibrant energy stood in sharp contrast to Edward’s stolid obsessiveness, and she wore her ’30s gowns and flamboyant hats with panache (costumes by Ildikó Debreczeni). Her breathless monologues were each a tour de force, and her dancerly movement added to her character’s vitality.