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Southern Gothic

Regina, Marc Blitzstein’s opera adaptation of The Little Foxes, brings a starry cast to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
By Joe Cadagin
Photographs by Dario Acosta
 

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All in the family: James Morris, Susan Graham, Susanna Phillips and Ron Raines, stars of Regina at OTSL
Graham’s dress: Henry Schickerling for Tosca New York
Hair styling by Richard Cooley/www.utopianyc.com; Makeup by Affan Graber Malik
Photographs by Dario Acosta
   
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Susan Graham, channeling Alabama vixen Regina Hubbard Giddens
Photograph by Dario Acosta
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James Morris is the conniving Ben Hubbard in Regina
Photograph by Dario Acosta

THE HUBBARDS OF MARC BLITZSTEIN'S 1949 opera Regina represent the archetypical Southern Gothic family—descending into moral decay while desperately trying to maintain a semblance of propriety. “We call it a more genteel House of Atreus,” says Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s artistic director, James Robinson, director of the company’s new Regina, alluding to the parricidal clan of Greek myth. 

Blitzstein’s libretto for Regina, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes, follows the despicable Hubbard siblings of turn-of-the-century Alabama, who take advantage of rapid industrialization in the post-Reconstruction “New South” to build up a cotton empire. Leonard Bernstein referred to them as “ugly people engaged in ugly dealings with one another”; they partake in acts of extortion, domestic abuse, theft, incest and voluntary manslaughter, all carried out with the utmost charm. As the opera opens, siblings Ben, Oscar and Regina Hubbard are arranging a business deal that would establish a cotton mill on their plantation. The devious Regina discovers her brothers’ plot to cheat her on the transaction and blackmails her way into a larger cut of the profits at the price of alienating her daughter Alexandra.

THIS IS THE FIRST major revival of Regina since Utah Opera’s 2009 production. It’s the great American opera we seem to have forgotten. In the years after its brief opening run on Broadway, Regina was overshadowed by the works of Blitzstein’s more popular contemporaries—Gershwin, Barber, Menotti and Blitzstein’s close friend Bernstein. Audiences today are more familiar with Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union musical that had its premiere in June 1937 against all odds after a federal government decree deferred all WPA-funded openings for new works of theater until after July (as captured in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name). While less inflammatory, Regina confused critics and viewers with its mix of musical-theater and opera. Bernstein, along with Cole Porter, Tennessee Williams and nine other showbiz greats, attempted to make up for low ticket sales by taking out an ad in the New York Times encouraging audiences to see the show. 

“I think that sometimes these operas just need a little time before people take a serious second look at them,” says Robinson, who first saw Regina in a 1991 production at Boston Lyric Opera conducted by OTSL’s music director Stephen Lord. “I was just so enthralled with the piece. So it has been on our shortlist at Opera Theatre for a while. But the thing about it is you always need to think about casting—it’s a really tricky show to cast. It’s a star vehicle, no doubt about it.” Since its inception, OTSL has been committed to showcasing up-and-coming vocalists, but the company is bending its rules for this production by featuring seasoned soloists. Many of them have been involved with OTSL’s emerging-artists program in the past, either as participants or as mentors. Legendary Wagnerian bass-baritone James Morris, who plays the coolheaded Ben Hubbard, led master classes during the 2016 season. He recalls “standing around one time with a drink in my hand, which is always very dangerous. And I said, ‘I’d like to sing here some time. But I’ll be an old fart amongst all these young kids.’”

Mezzo Susan Graham got her big break singing Erika in Barber’s Vanessa at OTSL in 1988. Her performance as Regina will mark the thirtieth anniversary of her debut with the company. It’s a role that resonates with Graham, who grew up in Texas. (She says she plans to consult with a dialect coach “to avoid sounding like Foghorn Leghorn.”) “I know lots of women like Regina,” says Graham. “She’s kind of a type. I call it the velvet hammer—it’s the Southern woman who is hard as nails but couches everything in a sweet smile. I used to say that you could consider yourself a true Texan if you could tell somebody to go to hell with a smile on your face. That’s kind of how I approach Regina.” Graham adds that she’s looking forward to breaking free of the “girl- or boy-next-door” typecasting for mezzos. “She’s about as greedy and conniving as they get. And I don’t often get to play parts like that. I’m so sweet. I’m Susie Sunshine, Miss Congeniality. But that’s another reason this part really appeals to me. Because I’ve always felt that the stage was a great analysis couch. You get to work your ‘stuff’ out onstage that you might not get to do in real life.”

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Ron Raines, who sings Oscar Hubbard in Regina at
OTSL

Photograph by Dario Acosta
 

Joining Graham is fellow Texan Ron Raines, known for his work on Broadway and on the CBS soap opera Guiding Light. In addition to playing Frederick in A Little Night Music at OSTL in 2010, Raines is proud to have participated in “the first production of the first-season opening night of the entire opera company”—a 1976 performance of Don Pasquale. He eventually veered away from opera toward musical theater and operetta, though always taking roles that required a classically trained voice. But he soon found his career coming full circle: “In the ’80s, the opera companies really started doing classic American musical theater with shared productions of Carousel, A Little Night Music, Oklahoma, La Mancha. All of these classic musical roles started opening up. So, I got to go back to the opera world to do musicals and operetta.”

Raines’s presence in the cast as Oscar Hubbard points to the flexibility of Regina as a hybrid of opera and musical theater. It’s the show’s grounding in the latter that sets it apart from other American operas, says director Robinson: “I would look at Vanessa and say, ‘That’s clearly built on a European model.’ But Regina is a very American piece in terms of its style—its combination of dialogue and singing and the musical elements.” To set the place and time, Blitzstein draws heavily on ragtime, blues and jazz, placing a Dixieland band onstage. Several numbers feel more like showtunes than arias, including a one-note “rap” for Regina that predates Hamilton by nearly seventy years. This popular-leaning style is particularly conducive to crossover artists: Jane Pickens, the first Regina, sang in the second ZiegfeldFollies of 1936 alongside Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee; more recently, Patti LuPone starred in a 2005 semi-staged performance of Regina at the Kennedy Center. 

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Alabama native Susanna Phillips sings Regina’s troubled
Birdie Bagtry Hubbard

Photograph by Dario Acosta
 

Like Candide and Porgy and Bess, Regina underwent numerous revisions as it moved between the operatic and musical-theater stage. OTSL is performing a modified version of the 1991 Scottish Opera edition, for which conductor John Mauceri and record producer Tommy Krasker restored much of the original music that had been cut from Blitzstein’s score over the years. This edition emphasizes issues that will resonate with contemporary audiences—for instance, domestic violence and sexual harassment. Soprano Susanna Phillips, who hails from the Hubbards’ home state of Alabama, will make her OTSL debut as Oscar’s Southern-aristocrat wife, Birdie, one of the few sympathetic characters in Regina. “All she wants is happiness and peace,” says Phillips. “And unfortunately, a long time ago she realized that nobody wanted her—not even her husband. He wanted her land.” Birdie’s loveless and abusive marriage is essentially a business contract allowing the Hubbards to take over her family’s plantation. It’s a painful reminder of the culture of transactional sex in the entertainment industry and beyond that is only now being treated seriously. “What is very similar is the abuse of power,” says Phillips. “I think her husband really takes the reins and tries to control Birdie in every possible way. He literally slaps her down. And that unfortunately happens in our society too much—figuratively and literally.”

BLITZSTEIN AND HELLMAN WERE dedicated to provoking social change with their art. Blitzstein was a member of the Communist Party. Their politics ran them into trouble in the McCarthyist 1950s, when they were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blitzstein, a fervent advocate for workers’ rights, was a great admirer of Brecht and -Weill; his 1954 translation of The Threepenny Opera has become the standard, and jazz singers continue to croon his English lyrics for “Mack the Knife.” In The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein emulated the duo’s gritty, socially-conscious style with his own critique of capitalism. It’s a theme that returns in Regina: the Hubbards are depicted as corrupt racketeers who exploit poor black laborers. African–American characters, who are peripheral in Hellman’s play, become central to Blitzstein’s libretto. He expanded the role of the housekeeper Addie (mezzo Melody Wilson in OTSL’s production) and added a band of black Dixieland musicians who provide racial commentary with their music. In the opera’s prologue, a bandleader named Jazz sings a syncopated number with the chorus, “Naught’s a naught, figger’s a figger. All for the white man, and none for the —.” The expected slur that would complete the rhyme was cut for the premiere of Regina, but the Scottish Opera edition reinstated the lyric, along with lines about poverty-stricken relations and a thieving white boss. 

This topic of race relations would seem especially touchy for a St. Louis-based opera company, given the wave of protests that swept the city last fall over the death of Anthony Lamar Smith and the acquittal of officer Jason Stockley. But Robinson says OTSL is devoted to facing these kinds of controversial issues head-on: “We’ve really gone out of our way to make sure that we’re always treating the questions of race and inclusion or exclusion very frankly. But also, we’re not afraid of taking on operas that have really challenging subjects. It’s actually become kind of a calling card for what we do these days.” In 2011, three years before the Met’s Death of Klinghoffer firestorm, Robinson treated his own production of Adams’s opera “as an opportunity to reach out to the Muslim community, the Jewish community—everybody—to have a really frank discussion about what the piece is about and what the piece is not about.” OTSL’s 2013 premiere of Terrence Blanchard’s Champion, based on the life of bisexual African–American boxer Emile Griffith, opened a similar dialogue. “The community and the audience, they expect us to take on subjects and to treat them in a really bold, imaginative way, but also in a really sensitive way.”

THERE ARE MOMENTS in Regina that today may smack of blackface minstrelsy—the exaggerated dialects of black characters, for instance, or their perpetually carefree song-and-dance demeanor. But in the context of 1949, the show was tremendously forward-thinking, especially in the way Blitzstein turns African–American music into a subversive element within the drama. In a triumphant moment at the end of the opera, Regina’s daughter Alexandra, or Zan, makes a final stand against her mother. Robinson calls her “the quiet hero of the story. She’s leaving her mother to cling to her old ways and the old house. Zan has moved on. She’s essentially powerless, but she feels empowered to take a step forward.” Disgusted by the genteel evils committed by her mother and uncles, she rejects her family and vows to fight injustice, singing, “Some people eat all the earth. Some stand around and watch.” The offstage black characters break into a traditional call-and-response spiritual that offers a promise of hope for the South: “Is a new day a-coming? Certainly, Lord.” spacer 

Joe Cadagin is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford University. 



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