Tony Kushner’s seminal play, Angels in America, is marked by its more-is-more approach to telling the story of several New Yorkers in the thick of the 1980s AIDS crisis. There are dozens of locations, tens of characters portrayed by eight actors, and more words than can sometimes be believed. While multiple locations and a large array of performers are not prohibitive in opera (in fact, they are often two of its defining characteristics), the kind of verbosity Kushner employs – the language of fast-talking Jews and their friends, enemies, and paramours – cannot make the leap to the new medium.
Librettist Mari Mezei has made necessary, but drastic trims to Kushner’s play, honing the story in tightly on the protagonist, Prior Walter. Mezei condenses the seven-plus hours of dramatic action and debate into a very tight two hours and change, leaving most of the nuance, poetry, and politics of Kushner’s play by the wayside. As a result, Prior is the only fully developed character in the opera; everyone else is reduced to brief distillations of their arcs.
This is most apparent, and most tragic, where the opera concerns Harper Pitt. In the play, Harper undertakes a journey of self-discovery when her husband, Joe, leaves her for a man. She fights through the pain and becomes her own person, independent of the man who made her devalue herself. In Mezei’s libretto, Harper’s function is whittled down to a wallowing, depressive drug addict who exists only to be left by Joe and, then, to remark that she misses his penis. This line is lifted from Kushner’s play, but contradicts some earlier text that Mezei has added. In an argument with Joe toward the beginning of the opera, Mezei has Harper remark that she is happy they don’t have sex anymore. In the play, Kushner specifically shows Harper and Joe having sex, unsatisfying as it may be, so her later line that, she “miss[es] his penis” is directly referencing something. Instead, adrift of the requisite backstory of the line, she is just a spurned Valium-popper remarking that she misses a man’s penis.
This is but one example of the gaps in the text that Mezei’s abridgment has created. There are several instances, though, where she is able to layer scenes that are separate in the play to create interesting new connections in the libretto. The most effective occurrence is in the first act, just after Louis has left Prior in the hospital. In the play, Louis has an anonymous assignation with a stranger in Central Park. In the opera, the stranger he encounters is Joe. This allows the two scenes of Louis’ and Joe’s courtship in the play to be elided into one in the opera.
Sam Helfrich’s production dispenses with the devices of Brechtian epic theatre Kushner calls for in the play, favoring instead a sleek, icy tone. John Farrell’s black-tiled unit set resembles a hospital morgue, with swinging white doors, horizontal blinds, and a rolling garage door. Derek Van Heel’s lighting is like a piercing finger point as the Angel speaks to Prior. It is all very sterile, it is all very stylish. It does not evoke the messiness of the characters’ lives, and it does not illuminate any sense of the period. But for the lack of cell phones, it could be a contemporary story we’re seeing.
As Prior Walter, Andrew Garland sang with a deep richness and strength. These are not usually qualities associated with a character dying of AIDS, but it is how the role is written. In spite of this, Garland managed to wring out the inner pain Prior experiences from Louis’ abandonment, and his fear that this may be the end of his life. It was a sensitive, empathetic performance. As Louis Ironson, Aaron Blake sang passionately and was convincing in his anguish. Eötvös’ and Mezei’s Louis is not neurotic and emotional, like Kushner’s. He is measured and still and lets his turmoil simmer below the surface. It is interesting that Prior is voiced as a baritone and Louis is a tenor, when one would expect the lighter colors of a tenor’s voice to be more appropriate for Prior, given his illness and his former proclivities for drag.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is an American masterpiece and it is clear why Eötvös was interested in adapting it for the operatic stage. It is bravura, it is brash, it is noisy, it is sexy, it is devastating. The music runs through all of these, almost imperceptibly in its transitions. It is a very psychologically astute score; the subtext we lose in the libretto is often hinted at in the orchestra. It is a brave choice by New York City Opera to present this work, the first in an initiative to produce an LGBT opera every year during Gay Pride. While it is disappointing to hear so much of Kushner’s language cut away, it is thrilling to hear these characters’ voices express themselves through the heightened realm of music.