Escaping Its Own Form: The Hours and Modern Opera

Design by Cleo Maloney

7:37. Our tickets said seven, and I assumed that the opera would start late—maybe 15 minutes, or 20—but as I sat in the Dress Circle of the Metropolitan Opera House, the stage filled with an enormous screen depicting a ticking gold Bayard clock, I felt uneasy about how long we had been waiting, apprehensive of the time slipping away.

The clock is, of course, an explicit allusion to the opera’s focus on the passage of time—in case its title, The Hours, didn’t make that clear enough. But as obvious as the visual pun is, it’s also effective, forcing the viewer to adopt a sort of hyper-consciousness of time. If opera is, according to Carolyn Abbate’s A History of Opera, principally a “means of manipulating time,” then this colossal countdown had already begun the temporal dilation. This tool is also characteristic of the opera’s source text, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel of the same name, as well as of the inspiration for that text, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925. Woolf’s description in the novel of a walk through London exactly mirrored the opening moments of the opera, as the overture began and the curtain rolled up: “An indescribable pause, a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

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“If you take away the music, the plots [of operas] are ripe for parody or kitsch… the poetic text is usually second-class, formulaic at best,” writes Abbate. Professor Gary Tomlinson, a scholar of the operatic tradition from 1600 to 1900, told me that traditionally, opera writers adapted preexisting stories: “What becomes absolutely standard in the operatic tradition is to take spoken dramas as the model for operas. Looking at preexisting dramas, contemporary or historical, comes to be one of the standard sources for operatic plots.” These stories were generally familiar to viewers, a generic template over which music—the real creative ingenuity of opera—could be arranged.

An opera based on a novel presents challenges. The underlying storyline is intricate, not formulaic; the characters are complex rather than stock. Relating this kind of story onstage, in song, is an enormous feat: “In literature, you have an extraordinary access to language,” Tomlinson told me. “To transform that into a libretto, you must economize. And of course, there’s a narrative point of view that novels have that is not amenable to film or theater.” 

But a new medium also presents novel opportunities. On this note, Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Hours and creative writing professor at Yale, wrote to the Herald: “In an opera or a film, you don’t have the same access to interiority. But you’ve got singers and actors who can make thousands of physical gestures that aren’t really possible in prose. And you’ve got simultaneity.” Indeed, both movement (facilitated by an ensemble of more than two dozen dancers) and coincidence (made possible by the Met’s enormous stage, which could contain as many as three ‘sub-sets’ at once) were essential tools for the novel’s operatic retelling.

This is not the first time that The Hours has switched mediums. The novel itself is, in Cunningham’s words, “a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, in the sense of a jazz musician playing variations on an existing piece of great music.” Three years after it was published, The Hours was turned into a film of the same name, directed by Kevin Daldry and with a screenplay by David Hare and a soundtrack by Philip Glass. It starred Meryl Streep (DRA ’75), Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore. Remarking on the experience of having his work translated across forms, Cunningham wrote, “I wanted [Hare] to have free rein. I don’t share the feeling some other writers have about the sacred text. If someone as gifted as David Hare wants to adapt it, he should interpret it in his own way.”

Nearly two decades later, the story has once again been reinvented, debuting this November as an opera, with music written by Kevin Puts and with a libretto by Greg Pierce. This latest version has clearly taken cues from the film (especially in terms of costuming and wigs, where designer Tom Pye has recreated the appearances of Streep, Kidman, and Moore), creating a continuous chain of artistic inspiration extending from 1925 to 2022, from novel to film to opera.

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Around 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, December 7, Judah Millen (PC ’24) and I stepped off the MetroNorth train at the Harlem-125th station. 40 minutes later, we were devouring halal cart falafel in the Lincoln Center Plaza; three minutes after that, we entered the opera house. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ornate ceiling; staircases flanked by velvet banisters led well-dressed guests up four levels of balconies. In the lobby, two androgynous elderly people in matching berets cooed at each other in a foreign language and shared a kiss. 

I picked out a fashionable young woman in an electric-blue corduroy suit and Doc Martens, leaning against the balcony and casually sipping a flute of champagne. Crossing to speak with her, I learn that this night at the opera was an early birthday gift from her father. A New-York based singer-songwriter and recent graduate of Berklee College of Music, Ingrid Saga described why she wanted to see this show in particular: “There’s so much going on with the different stories. I’m interested in how they manage to make it all come together.” Still thinking about the smooching septuagenarians in the lobby, I asked her what she made of the average age of the audience. “It’s a different part of New York than I’m used to,” Saga remarked with a slight laugh. “I feel out of place, which I love.” 

But while this sense of social novelty was refreshing to Saga, the incongruence between form and content within the opera itself was at times jarring and unpleasant. In the opening scene, Denyce Graves, playing Sally, calls her partner Clarissa “babe” in a booming mezzo-soprano voice. The dissonance in that moment between intimate conversation and performative song, between modern language and an ancient art form, made me physically cringe. I had come in with my doubts about ‘opera-fying’ a story that partially takes place in “New York City at the end of the twentieth century” (as is both projected on the upper wall and sung out by the ensemble, in a very “tell-don’t-show” style), and this moment confirmed all my worst fears. The constantly shifting, minimalist scenery; the lurid, futuristic lighting; the dialogue that sounded like it came from an early-2000s teen movie—had The Hours strayed too far? Commenting on this general phenomenon throughout the opera, Judah noted, “I don’t think this is the way to modernize opera. People are attracted to opera for its ancient aesthetic, for its unabashed decadence, for its opulence.” Tomlinson expressed similar concerns about contemporary works: “In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many composers tried to supersede the very medium of opera. It’s particularly painful in English opera, a language not all that welcome to singing. When they try to do a sort of operatic ‘photorealism’—a depiction of everyday life, just with people singing instead of speaking—that strikes me as a deeply inauspicious choice.”

On the other hand, Saga viewed these changes as necessary, unsettling as they might be: “I think that’s the role of a place like [the Met]—to preserve the classics but also move the tradition forward, to try new things, to make opera accessible. They should put on the works people know they want to see, but also stuff that might be challenging.”

The problem with this innovative opera, however, is not that it gives viewers something challenging or unexpected: in some ways, it’s the opposite issue. In a blurb in the program, composer Kevin Puts described how he created three distinct musical themes to represent the three stories that make up the opera: Virginia Woolf’s music apparently had an “almost baroque quality,” Laura Brown’s an artificial “glossiness,” and Clarissa Vaughan’s an “urban vibe” to match—you guessed it—her “New-York-City-at-the-end-of-the-twentieth-century” setting. This choice was a notable departure from Glass’ choice in the film to use the same music to unite the three storylines, creating a soundtrack that so ingeniously encapsulates the graceful anxiety of the story that it stands as a musical meditation on the novel(s) in its own right. This creative decision was in some ways wise, setting the opera apart from the film as its own sonic reinterpretation of the novel, but it was also tragic for Glass aficionados who had seen how well The Hours could be represented with stylistically unified music. And even if it was distinct from the film soundtrack, this mapping of distinct musical themes onto individual characters was overly literal. In our conversation the morning before I went to the opera, Tomlinson warned me, “It might not be wise to try to differentiate these eras musically, but [Puts] might try to do it. It would be a little predictable.” Perhaps in their attempt to banish arcane subtleties from opera, Puts and Pierce moved too far into the territory of the obvious. The libretto’s wordplay was creative, but predictable—”hours” and “flowers” can only be rhymed so many times.

More troubling was the fact that the music failed to add nuance to the work in the ways it should have. The climax of the opera, a reimagining of the suicide central to Mrs. Dalloway, was emotionally powerful, but only because of the heart-wrenching, well-delivered dialogue, mostly sourced from Cunningham’s novel. The singing, on the other hand, was forgettable. “The music entirely fell to the wayside during the parts of the work with the most emotional impact,” Judah complained. The opera seemed to be trying to escape, rather than embrace, its own form.

 Commenting on this pulling back from traditional “operatic” modes of representation, Yale professor of music Jessica Peritz, who saw The Hours last weekend, said: “I suspect that this is partly due to assumptions on the creators’ part about the relationship between realism and evoking feeling. That is, the work seems to be operating under some notion that events on stage can only make an emotional impact on today’s audiences by breaking out of a so-called ‘operatic’ idiom.” If the performance of it all, the “bombast and grandeur” that Judah praised as an immutable attribute of great opera, is all too much for our modern sensibilities, where can opera go from here?

 Maybe, the mistake lies in the assumption that opera should depict life “photorealistically,” as Tomlinson put it. It is in this musically uninteresting emotional climax, in which Richard refuses to put on a “performance” by attending the party Clarissa is hosting him, that the opera achieves some sort of self-consciousness, decrying its own artificiality. The irony here is that Richard’s outburst here is a one-man show he performs for Clarissa, one he waits to begin until she comes back to his apartment to find him sitting on the window ledge. Just as Richard cannot escape this self-invalidating hypocrisy, the opera cannot separate itself from its own mimetic performance.  

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For all these disappointments, I still found myself moved by the ending moments of the opera: the three protagonists come together, “finding themselves in a space that transcends time and place,” according to the program. Instead of succumbing to the glamorized deaths characteristic of female operatic leads from Isolde to Carmen, the women at the end of this work all choose life. Stepping away from their families and romantic interests, the trio finally gain the autonomy that each has searched for throughout the story. To Peritz, this moment “gets beyond the longstanding presumption that women’s writing, and more fundamentally women’s subjectivity, is first and foremost relational in a romantic or domestic way.” 

Even as it breaks from tradition in all these ways, this final moment also engages with the medium’s history. “The final scene is in many ways an evocation of the famous [all-female] trio at the end of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier,” Peritz wrote, “so that closing moment of The Hours is, to me, about shining a spotlight on the transhistorical bonds between the three women, but it is also a self-reflexive vocal-musical invocation of ‘opera,’ through the voices and personae of the singers themselves.” As the trio sang their final lines, their voices overlapped in elaborate harmonies and the violins swelled. Despite my qualms about the opera at large, I felt in this instant the immense power of operatic music to display something opulent and extravagant, and yet somehow deeply real.

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