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A Life Custom-Made for Opera : Harvey Milk, gay activist, San Francisco politician and martyr is the soul of a new contemporary work.

January 15, 1995|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York.

That opera became "Where's Dick?," which was produced by the Houston Grand Opera in a frantically absurd production by Richard Foreman in 1988. Performed outdoors, the opera--with its gleefully mean-spirited caricatures of good and evil, and its dizzying musical styles--announced a new composer/librettist team with an unmistakable flair for extravagance and controversy. The local press accused the opera company of stooping to pornography to sell tickets.

For their next opera, "Kabbalah," Wallace and Korie went to the seemingly opposite extreme, selecting as its subject mystical Judaism for a music theater piece that was first performed in 1989 at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York as part of the New Music America festival. Next, they explored the notions of high art and low in "Hopper's Wife," a preposterous fantasy in which American painter Edward Hopper is married to Hollywood gos sip columnist Hedda Hopper. Not yet staged, the work has been given in concert form at Minneapolis' Walker Arts Center.

All three of these works are what Korie calls "anti-opera opera." There is a continual complement of opposites. The ritualistic "Kabbalah" can become happily celebratory; one section, for instance, contains what conductor and early Wallace and Korie champion John DeMain calls "maybe the best use of 5/4 time since Paul Desmond's 'Take Five.' " On the other hand, the farcical "Where's Dick?" can be disarmingly operatic at moments.

With "Harvey Milk," Korie says that he and Wallace have written an "opera opera." "In Milk we felt that we had finally found a subject where we could write an opera that didn't hide behind a veil of cynicism or obfuscation, and the best way to do so was to return to standard opera format--three acts, true arias, love duets, ensemble pieces and so on."

But the opera also serves as a culmination of all their previous collaborations. It is a synthesis of the same polarities found in their earlier operas, with their radical contrasts of high and low art and of spiritual and mundane life. And it demonstrates contrasts between the collaborators as well.

Talking informally over dinner, they appear good friends, although there is a slight formality between them. They listen to each other respectfully, seeming to enjoy each other's company. They exhibit no overt competitiveness. They speak frankly of their strengths and weaknesses (Korie describes himself as a far better librettist than composer). They speak little of their private lives, but Korie, who is five years older than Wallace and who had once covered the gay scene for the Village Voice, acknowledges his "lover of 18 years" in his official biography; Wallace, in conversation, mentions his girlfriend.

They speak of Judaism as something that has drawn them together and that a trip they took to Israel to research "Kabbalah" had a profoundly spiritual effect on both of them. They both emphasize how important Harvey Milk's Jewish background is not only to their own identification with Milk but also to the kind of politician he became.

Korie's libretto, based on extensive period research and interviews, is a complex, intricate look at America during the period of Milk's life. Its three acts are "The Closet," "The Castro" and "City Hall." But Milk's odyssey is also, in the opera, a metaphor for a spiritual journey.

"When we approached the opera we realized from the onset that many people in the gay and straight world would not know who Harvey Milk was," Korie explains. "There is no sense of gay politics figuring into American history overall. It certainly is not taught in schools or families, and just to take Harvey Milk from the point where he moved to Castro and became politicized would not have shown battles that made him who he was.

"The thing that made him so interesting to us was that he had a prior life that was so different than what the popular impression of him became," Korie continues. "Harvey was a well-established stockbroker, an opera subscriber, a closeted gay with little particular interest in politics except having once campaigned for Goldwater.

"It was only in the wake of the Stonewall Uprising (the 1969 confrontation between police and gays in Greenwich Village) that Milk was able to accept himself both as gay and Jew and say that if he could stand up for one part of himself he could stand up for both, that he was able to forge a personal morality. And that's what enabled him to go out there to become an effective leader," he says.

" 'I am just one person, but I have power; I remember who I am' became his motto. It was a sort of naive belief, but we felt that his fierce conviction that it was true made it so."

" 'I am just one person, but I have power, I remember who I am' became his motto. It was a sort of naive belief, but we felt that his fierce conviction that it was true made it so."

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