BY DAVID SHENGOLD | From the start we’ve all been very clear that this is not about Oscar as a gay martyr. It’s about Oscar being a great man — honest and brave — to whom awful things were done because he was gay. That’s a difference we’re all clear on.”
I was speaking by phone with David Daniels, America’s reigning countertenor, about his latest project — the creation of the role of Oscar Wilde in an opera composed by Theodore Morrison to John Cox’s libretto due at the enchanting high desert home of Santa Fe Opera for five performances from July 27 to August 17.
Santa Fe Opera, star countertenor David Daniels ready new work about Wilde
Daniels was relaxing during a rare month off after his last Met show of “Giulio Cesare” on May 11. He’s very proud that he went on for every performance of the testing Handel production despite less than ideal circumstances — a persistent end-of-busy-season bug that many in the opera world seemed to experience this spring, plus, sadly, the death of his mother just before “Cesare” opened.
“I came right back from the funeral to do the HD showing,” he recalled.
Daniels’ parents were both singing teachers who installed professionalism — the show must go on.
His month of “relaxation” did encompass moving his longtime partner, Scott Walters, back home to Atlanta after his completing graduate work in choral conducting at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (where Daniels studied and where he met Morrison, who teaches there). Helming the manly moving van was involved, probably a nice break from practicing Handelian cadenzas.
At the “Cesare” HD showing, hosted by Renée Fleming, Daniels mentioned on camera that his partner had complained that after five years of living together he had still never met the superstar soprano. He “introduced” them right then and there, with Walters sitting in a movie theater back home.
“A lot of people complimented me for getting that out there, but I didn’t really do that as a statement,” Daniels said. “I was just being who I am! The same with ‘Oscar’ — I’m proud as a gay man to be doing it, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I think it’s a strong piece of opera and an important character and story to get out there.”
Still, however casually he approached self-outing years ago in the New Yorker, Daniels was one of the very first major male classical singers to do it. Not many more have followed — though two or three countertenors have been careful to out themselves as being straight! As such, he has been very touched to get mail and email from young men (particularly in isolated Southern communities) saying how glad they were to read about his story and how he’s found success. Whether or not they knew anything about Handel or Britten, just reading about an openly gay person leading a rewarding professional and personal life opened up new possibilities for them.
“Oscar” concentrates on Wilde’s trial and period of punishment in Reading Gaol — where he did what he could to alleviate the persecutions heaped on his fellow prisoners.
Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas, the ungrateful beauty whose homophobic father’s countersuit for “gross indecency” allowed Her Majesty’s Government to destroy the defiant Wilde — is depicted only in reminiscence by a dancer. The narrative is shaped by a figure Wilde really did meet historically — the godfather of American gay literature and Brooklyn hipness, Walt Whitman.
“It was just brilliant of John Cox to bring in Whitman, such a very different type of gay man,” Daniels said.
Composer Morrison wrote a well-reviewed 1992 symphony for chorus, tenor, and baritone entitled “War and Reconciliation” using Whitman texts. Wilde’s lonely — if still, reportedly, aphorism-cracking — death in a Paris hotel room is not portrayed onstage. Instead, Whitman leads him to Immortality.
“The final line is just fantastic — so simply stated — I just love it. And, no, I’m not gonna tell you!” Daniels deadpanned.
The countertenor credited the composer and librettist with the idea of this work, but he signed on to the project as soon as Morrison brought the idea to him.
“I workshopped both acts of it with piano and percussion, so I’m very familiar with everything except the final orchestration, which I can’t wait to hear,” he said.
Being part of the process allowed him to consult with Morrison about tessitura — how high a character’s vocal line is placed — and dynamics.
“Theo’s a singer himself and a damn good composer of vocal music, so he understands singers’ needs and abilities,” Daniels said. “It’s in places Brittenesque — but, speaking as someone who likes music theater, unlike a lot of other current operas it is not a music theater idiom, but definitely opera.”
Daniels created and has often performed a song cycle by Morrison — “Chamber Music,” based on texts by James Joyce — and has had music written for him by Jonathan Dove, though illness kept him from premiering it. But “Oscar” represents the first time he will be creating an operatic role from the ground up.
From his high-level Santa Fe colleagues in “Oscar,” Daniels is expecting good working partnerships.
“I know Bill Burden — who plays Frank Harris [another writer, one of Wilde’s staunchest defenders] — very well, though oddly we’ve never actually sung together,” he said. “Another of Oscar’s loyal friends, Ada Leverson, will be Heidi Stober, with whom I’ve worked a lot [including for Santa Fe’s 2008 “Radamisto”] — she’s great.”
Last summer at Santa Fe he got to know Evan Rogister, the up-and-coming conductor who was leading another gay-themed opera, Karel Szymanowski’s “King Roger,” and was impressed by his work . The same is true, by Daniels’ reckoning, for busy director Kevin Newbury and Met stalwart baritone Dwayne Croft, who plays Whitman.
The production, with Daniels very much still in place, will travel to Opera Philadelphia in a future season. But the excitement of creation awaits in lovely Santa Fe, surely among the most beautiful operatic venues in the world and a locale with myriad other reasons to be there. The company has many great singers on tap — Joyce di Donato, Lawrence Brownlee, Susan Graham, Michael Fabiano, Lisette Oropesa, and Zachary Nelson, just for starters. But the big responsibility — embodying a gay hero redrawn in new artistic terms — awaits David Daniels.
OSCAR | The Santa Fe Opera | Jul. 27, 8:30 p.m. | Jul. 31, Aug. 9, 12 & 17, 8 p.m. | $32-$285 at santafeopera.org
David Shengold (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about opera for many venues.