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Wilde at Heart

This summer, David Daniels takes on the title role in a vehicle created expressly for him — Oscar, an opera about Oscar Wilde, the flamboyant literary celebrity of late-Victorian England. Daniels tells OUSSAMA ZAHR why Wilde's story is relevant to twenty-first-century audiences.

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Portrait photographed by Marty Umans at the National Arts Club, New York City
Grooming by Affan Malik / Jacket: Giorgio Armani
© Marty Umans 2013
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In the title role of Giulio Cesare at the Met, 2013
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
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In Radamisto at Theater an der Wien, 2013
© Monika Rittershaus 2013

"Wow, what a really cool question!"

David Daniels is sitting across the couch from me in his friend's apartment a few blocks from Lincoln Center, trying to remember whether he had any gay heroes growing up in South Carolina in the early 1980s. It seems an apt question for the man about to portray one of English literature's foremost gay icons, the wit-dispensing dandy and playwright Oscar Wilde, in Theodore Morrison and John Cox's new bio-opera Oscar, opening next month at Santa Fe Opera. An ebullient talker, Daniels is taking an uncharacteristically long beat as he considers his answer to the question.

"No," he says finally. "What I did was go to the public library and read about it. It was amazing, because I remember — I never think about this — there're a lot of books written, and I wanted to know who I was and what I was. I grew up with parents who were singers and around theater people, so I knew gay people all the time. I was fortunate in that way. I remember pulling the card catalogue out and going to the Hs, and it was amazing how smushed down the index cards were from fingers around 'Homosexual.' Spartanburg, South Carolina, County Public Library. So I obviously was not the only one going in — but isn't that amazing? I remember it very vividly. I'd just look and find where it was, and I'd go sit in a corner and read about myself. But I didn't really have any idols. I was such a weirdo, I was listening to opera — LP operas and Caballé and Franco Corelli — and Barbra Streisand." (For the inquiring reader, his literary tastes ran to Edmund White and Gordon Merrick.)

Daniels has never been shy about discussing his sexuality with the press, but he hasn't been obnoxious or grandstanding about it either. For him, it's just a fact of his life like any other, and he doesn't attach any baggage to it. He first spoke on the record about it in a 1997 New Yorker profile, and evidently some journalists took the disclosure as an invitation. "I often bring this up to Hugh Canning of the London Times," Daniels says, a mixture of disbelief and lightheartedness in his voice. "I remember that my very first Handel CD with Norrington, he reviewed it, and he said, 'David Daniels, brooding on the cover like a George Michael for chubby chasers.' That was my first review. Today, he still thinks it's the funniest thing that he's ever written. He laughs, he says, 'I was just playing with you.' But he's been very nice to me over the years, and most of the London critics are not."

Daniels was thrilled when Morrison came to him with the idea for an opera about Wilde's life. "Really, I would love to say that it was my idea about Oscar Wilde," he says, "but it was actually more Theo and John's idea, and of course I jumped all over it. All I said to Theo was that I want a subject and a character that has an edge, a story that has an edge, that has something politically connected to now, and an important story to tell. And they came up with this idea, and it's perfect."

When Oscar began to take shape, nine years ago, it would have been difficult to predict that gay issues would occupy the national spotlight to the degree they do now (to say nothing of the way the subject has taken off on television). In 2010, the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi sparked a national outcry over the bullying of gay youth; Ellen DeGeneres called it an epidemic on her talk show, and columnist Dan Savage created the Emmy Award-winning It Gets Better Project, a website where ordinary citizens, politicians and celebrities (including opera stars Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton) have contributed inspirational videos addressed to struggling gay youth. President Obama made the decision to endorse the right of gay couples to marry in the run-up to his reelection campaign last year, and, as this issue goes to press, the Supreme Court is expected to rule any day now on a pair of anti-same-sex-marriage laws, California's Proposition 8 and the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act. 

"Whether or not we'll see some sort of action this year, I think we're gonna see gay marriage and the rights of same-sex couples protected under the Constitution in our lifetime. I really do believe that now," says Daniels. "I'm not sure if five years ago I did, but I do now."

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As Prospero in the world premiere of The Enchanted Island at the Met, 2011
© Johan Elbers 2013

Any treatment of Oscar Wilde's life has its choice of two obvious angles — the all-consuming, torrid love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, better known to his friends and generations of Wilde fans as "Bosie"; and the trial, imprisonment and fall from grace that precipitated Wilde's death at the age of forty-six. In the dizzying glamour of Wilde's prime, his matchless wit, charm and celebrity — not to mention his tremendous success as the author of such works as The Importance of Being Earnest — made him the toast of Victorian high society, and his philosophical interest in aestheticism dovetailed nicely with the sensual pleasures of luncheons, dinners, suppers and drinks with Bosie and a coterie of admirers. "The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring," Wilde wrote from his prison cell. "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram." 

"One of the striking things to me was to realize that there hadn't been an opera written about Oscar Wilde up to this point," says Santa Fe Opera general director Charles MacKay. "And he seems like such an operatic figure, a larger-than-life figure, with all of the pathos and this incredible story of someone who went from just being at the very top to hitting rock bottom — a man who was perhaps the world's first media celebrity, a man of enormous fame and wealth at the time before his arrest and imprisonment, a man of great contradictions, someone who relished and flaunted his position in society, went to jail and suffered unspeakable hardship for what he believed in, for loving another man. Opera always deals with outsize characters, and it seems like Oscar Wilde really was ripe for an opera."

Morrison and Cox thought so, too. The two first met backstage at London's Barbican in 2004, after a concert in which Daniels sang Chamber Music, a song cycle on James Joyce poems that Morrison had written especially for him. Cox congratulated the composer and asked him whether he had considered writing an opera. Morrison remembers, "I said, 'No, but I would love to write one for David.' And he said, 'Let's talk about it.'" Cox initially floated the idea of the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev as the opera's subject. "Pretty much I didn't want to do Diaghilev," Morrison laughs, "because it would require Stravinsky's music rather than mine." The composer found his inspiration waiting for him at home on a bookshelf — Richard Ellmann's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilde biography.

Morrison and Cox read dozens of books by and about Wilde, and the libretto, which they cowrote, leans heavily on primary sources, including the recent collection of letters Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, edited by Wilde's only grandchild, Merlin Holland, who gave the creators permission to use them in the opera. Morrison says that he and Cox "have written the connective tissue" and organized the quoted material into a structure. Act I focuses on the 1895 trial, when Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency" (i.e., homosexual acts), and Act II follows him into prison, where he encounters Bosie, played by a dancer, in extended imaginative sequences. 

"We have a lot of his cute sayings in this piece," says Daniels, "but this was a really scary time for him. I think he had an arrogance about him. I don't think he really thought that he was going to go into that prison for two years. I think he thought that somehow this wasn't going to happen, because he's just too brilliant, and certainly not hard labor six hours a day. I think it's important that even though he says these witty things, that the edge is still there, the fear is still there, from the beginning of the show."

Daniels's profound belief in the project — he footed the bill for the demo recording that ultimately helped land the commission — was a major factor in persuading MacKay to take it on. "David made it clear that this is a role that is very important to him personally," says MacKay. "And I think it comes for him at just the perfect moment in his career, when he is at the height of his interpretive powers." Having a star attached to the project also made it easier to find a commissioning partner: Opera Philadelphia has already announced plans to present Oscar in February 2015 as part of its American Repertoire Program.

Daniels has a particular kind of self-deprecating humor: he tends to underplay his own seriousness. At our March meeting, during his first week of rehearsals for the Met's new Giulio Cesare, the conversation turns to reading Wilde's works in preparation for Oscar, and Daniels teases himself with "I'm much more of a Lifetime Channel, made-for-TV-movies sort of researcher. Don't shake your head — you know it's the truth!" (This last bit he directs at his boyfriend, Scott Walters, a graduate student in choral conducting at the University of Michigan, who is sitting in the next room.) "I'm just being honest. I find what I have learned about Wilde — yes, all of his creative quips and everything; we have plates at home with his quotes on them — I find all of that really interesting, but I don't think it would ever change the way I approach singing this music and telling the story. I just don't. I might be wrong, and I think there's a lot of singers in the world that would disagree with me, that are huge sort of 'I'm going to read everything historical about Julius Caesar that I can possibly find, so I can channel him on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.' To me it's about getting to the heart and to the soul and to the emotion of this man's story."

When Daniels says something like that, it isn't just boilerplate. One quality that his colleagues return to again and again in describing his work is the depth of feeling he expresses in each character he portrays. "Besides the fact that I think he has an absolutely gorgeous voice," says his Oscar costar Heidi Stober, who plays Wilde's friend Ada Leverson, "I think he might, for me, be one of the most inherently, beautifully natural, musical people." Daniels's rendition of "Ombra cara" in a concert performance of Radamisto at Carnegie Hall this past February was a case in point. As he drew out the melody with beautifully warm tone and undeniable mastery of the Handelian line, he seemed to capture the melancholy affect of the aria and present it like a gift to the audience, which thanked him with one of the biggest ovations of the afternoon. "I was actually a little moved [by the applause], because that kind of stuff happens at the beginning of your career, you know, when you're not old news," he says. "It was just really nice."

For stage director Peter Sellars, who gave Daniels one of his big breaks in the now legendary 1996 Glyndebourne production of Theodora, Daniels's connection with his audience stems from the striking combination of his otherworldly voice and his warm, relatable stage presence. As recently as twenty years ago, countertenors were regarded as a bizarre breed of classical singer, but Daniels was one of the first to step outside what Sellars calls "this strange, wan countertenor universe." The director feels that Daniels "projects incredible normalcy and a real person — not extravagance, not a kind of orchidaceous, rare, weird tropical flower. David had just this incredible ability to be extraordinary and normal simultaneously. And his extraordinary thing was to be normal." 

That combination of talent and relatability made Daniels a superstar, someone who could reach not only Baroque enthusiasts but the wider operagoing public. "He was certainly ironically and wonderfully the first countertenor diva," says Sellars. "The previous generations of countertenors were at pains not to be divas, or not to be perceived as divas, but to be perceived as serious working artists. David was the first person to have this kind of extraordinary career and auditoriums packed at his every appearance. That was a pretty new phenomenon." But Sellars doesn't mean to imply any diva antics on Daniels's behalf. "Most people who have quote-unquote diva status know what got them there and pretty much stick to that. David is just constantly open to what else he could do and what else is possible. I think that really marks him as an artist — you feel that freshness and openness in all his work."

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In a concert version of Radamisto at Carnegie Hall, with conductor Harry Bicket, 2013
© Hiroyuki Ito 2013

There's nothing that cements diva — ahem, divo — status like having a new opera crafted especially for you. And Daniels knows it. "To have an opera written for me — it's really special. Not just countertenors, there aren't many singers who can say that. It's very special, very humbling." He notes that new music is crucial for the voice type to thrive, and there isn't much out there: the last high-profile new work featuring a big countertenor role was probably Jonathan Dove's Flight (1998). 

But why is Oscar Wilde a countertenor, as opposed to, say, a lyric baritone? Lillie Langtry, a society beauty who enchanted the young Wilde, wrote in her memoirs, "He had one of the most alluring voices that I have ever listened to, round and soft, and full of variety and expression." Morrison points to a quote from the preeminent caricaturist Max Beerbohm, who said of Wilde, "He had a mezzo voice, uttering itself in leisurely fashion." "It was perfect," exclaims Morrison. "I mean, a mezzo voice? And then there's David singing in the mezzo range. Who could ask for more?" 

Morrison also sees a deeper reason, beyond any facile connection between homosexuality and the high, feminine range of the countertenor voice. Wilde was very much an outsider in Anglican England — an Irishman with Catholic leanings; a tall, physically overwhelming character who was described by contemporaries as "elephantine"; and an aesthete and a classicist at a time when both were basically euphemisms for being a homosexual. "The countertenor voice, it seems to me, is perfect, because it's the unusual voice in all of the fachs," observes Morrison. "It's the voice that represents a person who is different." But perhaps the best reason for making Wilde a countertenor is also the simplest: "David is a great artist, and he's the reason this opera exists," says Morrison. 

As Daniels looks ahead to the Oscar premiere, he's excited at the prospect of Supreme Court justice and avowed operaphile Ruth Bader Ginsburg making the trip to Santa Fe, as she's done in the past. "We always have to line up to shake their hands afterwards. 'Don't get your wigs off! Don't get anything off! Stand in line. Supreme Court justices are coming back,'"he says with a mix of awe and good humor. He met Ginsburg after Radamisto in 2008 but emphasizes that she did not see 2011's Griselda, which he describes, semi-diplomatically, as "not a great piece." "They gave her a heads-up, I think," he says with a laugh.

The fact that Oscar will be performed in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage is not lost on anyone involved in the project, but Daniels speaks most movingly about the plight of gay teens. "These kids that are bullied and persecuted for being gay — Will and Grace and all this stuff hasn't changed any of that. They still feel like there's no hope. The suicide rate is ridiculous. It's crazy," he says. "I know that there's not a lot of young kids that are going to be coming to Santa Fe Opera from rural America to come see this opera, I understand — but you never know what can happen from this." spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR is an editor at Mediander. He also contributes opera reviews to The New Yorker's Goings On About Town section. 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4