Howard’s End America, a Compelling New Chamber Opera for Modern Times

By Elsa Tranter

Photo credit: Jasmine Van T

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Earplay, with RealOpera, two adventurous San Francisco music groups, staged the world premiere of this new chamber opera this weekend at Z-space in San Francisco.  It was an exciting evening of music, successful in many ways, if not all.

E.M. Forster’s turn-of-20th Century novel “Howard’s End” is considered by many to be his masterpiece.  A film and a TV series have kept the original in the public eye for over a century.  Its success can be attributed to its timeless themes—social conventions, personal style, class differences and the duality of restraint and expressiveness—as well as its writing and well-drawn characters.  Set in England, it involves three couples—the upper class Wilcox family, owners of the estate Howard’s End, the Bloomsbury type liberals (two sisters) and a working class pair.  They interact in many ways.

The opera Howard’s End America, written by Allan Shearer to a libretto by Claudia Stevens, is their seventh operatic collaboration.  An earlier piece was the recent “Middlemarch in Spring”.  The current opera transports the action to 1950s Boston with Howard’s End on the coast north of the city (Marblehead, for those familiar with New England). The industrialist (turned banker) and his wife and their obnoxious son; the ‘do good’ activist sisters; and the working class struggling clerk (here notably an African-American and his partner) are the main characters.  

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Adding the race issue to the class issue in 1950s Boston is an interesting, if not totally effective, shift for the opera.  As an example, in the opening scene, Leonard Bast, the black man, meets Helen Schlegel, one of the two sisters, after a Boston Symphony performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, and they join voices in a bit of the “Ode to Joy” as the ultimate in musical beauty.  This is later contrasted with Leonard’s partner’s love of the jazz music of the 1930s suggesting that it is less worthy of attention.  To a modern audience this seems like a stereotypical false dichotomy, although in the 1950s it might have been more accurate.  (In the novel the music is Beethoven’s Fifth symphony—Forster was a great lover of classical music).  The twists and turns of the plot were sketched out but not developed fully, so knowing the story in advance was a big help).

The set design and projections, by a Bay Area regular, Jeremy Knight, were excellent.  Using wonderful rolling ocean waves through an open window at Howard’s End in all sorts of weather, was most entrancing, as were the city skyline, the Back Bay house fronts and the seedy back streets.  And the small touches such as the old-fashioned thermos bottle at the family picnic were effective throughout.  The costumes, by Marina Polakoff, seemed authentic (and familiar to me)—lots of cashmere cardigans, wide petticoated skirts, and pedal pusher pants.  The stage director, Philip Lowery, is another familiar face to Bay Area audiences, being involved with several other musical groups.  He brought the production together in a very satisfying way.

Soprano Sara Duchovnay as Helen; tenor Michael Dailey as Leonard Best

Soprano Sara Duchovnay as Helen; tenor Michael Dailey as Leonard Best

The singers were well-cast and all were true to their parts.  Bass-baritone Philip Skinner as the industrialist Henry Wilcox, gave a compelling performance, despite being a bit indisposed from a chest cold.  He is a stalwart of the Bay Area opera scene and always comes through.  His ailing wife, seen only in the first act, was beautifully acted and sung by mezzo-soprano Erin Neff, a regular performer at San Francisco Opera.  She had a great deathbed aria.  Their son Charles, the shallow frat boy, was sung with appropriate nastiness by baritone Daniel Cilli.  The two sisters, soprano Nikki Einfeld as the endearing Margaret and soprano Sara Duchovnay as the willful and reckless Helen, gave strong performances.  Tenor Michael Dailey gave an emotional performance as the unfortunate Leonard Best, caught in the snares of the ‘do-gooders’ and left to suffer the consequences.  His partner Jacky, a fading club singer, was played with spunk and pizazz by Candace Johnson.  

Through the ups and downs of the plot, the book (and the opera) has a satisfying conclusion, with some sort of justice delivered to those who deserve it

(R) Soprano Nikki Einfeld as Margaret

(R) Soprano Nikki Einfeld as Margaret

The small chamber orchestra, made up of some top local musicians, was conducted peppily by Music Director Mary Chun, who did an excellent job.  The music was at times beautiful and there were a few emotional duets, but more often it was a play set to music and not so much enhanced by it.  The occasional nods to other styles—the bits of Beethoven and the jazz tunes—were pleasant additions but left the reminder of how un-tuneful the rest of the music was.  

At the end of the evening, I was quite impressed with the overall effect of the performance, without feeling a need to re-listen to the music.  It is heartening that new operas are being written (and performed) even if they don’t all become classics.  This one was worth seeing!

Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.