On the Beat

On the Beat

A novel that sings: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.

On the beat Rhys LG 1212
Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea crowned her career
© Topham/The Image Works 2012

IN THE U.S., the path to a world-premiere opera is often littered with enormous obstacles: well-intentioned promises that wind up being broken in the practical light of day; difficulty meeting orchestration deadlines; the challenge of getting a conductor who really knows how to shape and guide a new piece; and the factor blighting so much of the opera world today — budget constraints. Over the years, I've talked to many general directors about commissioning work, and I often come away with the feeling that they are not so much focused on creating a potentially great new opera as they are driven to come up with something that will inject some enthusiasm into their season — something with built-in name recognition that will be a surefire sell to their subscriber base. Looking back at many of the opera commissions of the past two decades leaves one feeling a little dispirited. Many looked good on paper, but few can be said to have earned audience favor. (JAKE HEGGIE's Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick and MARK ADAMO's Little Women are notable exceptions.) Many were just plain clumsy and awkward. I'd still rather experience something new than most revivals. But after years of sitting through new operas saddled with misconceived librettos and meandering, cold-potatoes arioso, I often find myself wondering why companies and composers so seldom seem to get it right. When an opera is both an artistic and popular success — RICKY IAN GORDON's The Grapes of Wrath, for example — it's thrilling for all of us. 

It amazes me that in this time of enormous social upheaval and divisiveness, more companies are not exploring contemporary subject matter. The growing economic devastation worldwide and its effect on how we live and dream; the war in Iraq; the way that violence encroaches on our daily lives at schools, movie theaters and shopping malls; the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church — all of these seem to be subjects ripe for operatic treatment. (A few years ago, a star soprano spoke to me about wanting to commission an operatic vehicle. She threw out a musty historical subject, and I asked her why she didn't ask a composer to write her a piece about a woman living on food stamps in a trailer park. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind.)

Since musical adaptations of classic literary works are far more marketable than something with a modern theme, I do have a dream project — JEAN RHYS's magnificent novel Wide Sargasso Sea. I discovered Rhys's writing when I was in my mid-twenties and found myself transfixed by her lean, seductive prose. Very little light shines into the five books she published between 1927 and 1939: these are stories of sad, discouraged women drifting through London and Paris without adequate means of support, drinking too much, completely dependent on men (who inevitably turn out to be disappointments), relying on sex, deviousness and luck to get them from one bleak, dispiriting day to the next. 

As Carole Angier points out in her lengthy, fascinating and often ponderously detailed biography of the author, Jean Rhys: Life and Work, passivity was a key component in Rhys's character. For decades she scraped along living in bleak poverty in remote corners of Cornwall and Devon, where she was without telephone, television, radio and often even proper heating. (Angier reports that in later years, when Rhys had a bit of money, she got a record player but didn't understand that the long-playing record allowed you to move the needle to whichever selection you wanted to hear.) Since virtually every word Rhys wrote was highly autobiographical, that passivity shows up in her characters, too. But even if one does get a little out of sorts with the heroines at times — in Quartet,one's attention wanders from the action to puzzle over why Marya Zelli never considers applying for a proper job — Rhys's early books do a masterly job of creating and sustaining a mood. 

These, however, are merely a prelude to her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 — years after she had slipped into obscurity. It was a stunning literary comeback — Rhys's imagining of how Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre came to be locked upstairs at Thornfield Hall. Rhys's Bertha was once Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress living in the West Indies, married off to Englishman Edward Rochester. Although Rochester is bewitched by the beauty and sensuality of his young wife, he also is unnerved by the strangeness of her island home, and by the contemptuous attitudes of the black servants in his employ. Rhys put much of her own duality into the character of Antoinette, who is both frustrated by her exotic homeland and inextricably a part of it; madly in love with her husband, yet hating him for not understanding her fully. When she senses Rochester falling out of love with her, Antoinette persuades her servant Christophine to cast a spell on Rochester, aimed at reigniting his love for her. Rochester emerges from the spell thoroughly repelled by his wife, whom he carts off to England. (Antoinette is powerless, having under English law lost all right to her money and property when she married him.) Rochester takes her to Thornfield Hall, where she loses her reason and is locked away. Unlike other Rhys heroines, however, Antoinette plays a potent trump card in the book's chilling final pages.

Wide Sargasso Sea sold well, earned numerous prizes and allowed Rhys to go out a star. I think it could also benefit the right composer. (The novel inspired a chamber opera by BRIAN HOWARD, which had its premiere at the Merlyn Theatre in Melbourne in 1997, but I think a story that opens and closes with a fire demands a larger canvas.) The contrast of the eerie, intoxicating West Indies with the cold, grey isolation of Rochester's English estate has amazing possibilities, musically. For anyone who knows how to write for the voice, wonders could be done with the interplay of Antoinette's wild, undisciplined, childlike nature and Rochester's repressed passion. There are some rich secondary parts — the troublesome native Daniel, who claims to be Antoinette's half-brother; Amélie, the teasing servant girl whose seduction of Rochester pushes Antoinette further down the path of madness; and proper, formidable Aunt Cora, who vainly attempts to protect her niece's financial future. Dream cast: DIANA DAMRAU as Antoinette, SIMON KEENLYSIDE as Rochester, LEONA MITCHELL as Christophine. spacer 

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