In the historic accounts of Oscar Wilde, the event in question is generally no more than a footnote. References to it in both the play "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" (closing today at the Mark Taper Forum), and the British film "Wilde" (starring Stephen Fry, soon to be released in the U.S.) go by in a heartbeat.
But to composer Robert Moran, the event has a resonance of its own. In the aftermath of Wilde's arrest on sodomy charges in April 1895, some 600 London men caught the late-night ferry to Calais, presumably fearing the same fate.
That boat ride serves as the point of departure for "Night Passage," Moran's one-act opera with text by James Skofield, which the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles performs in its fully staged premiere Friday and Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The production, by director Robert Robinson, dresses the work's 20 soloists and various vocal ensembles in costumes spanning the social strata of the 1890s and places them on a minimalist set that first portrays a wooden deck, then scenes from their former lives, with the addition of a few props and a change of lighting. It's a more ambitious approach than either the 1997 Kansas City production that inserted a few staged vignettes or the work's more traditional vocal 1995 choral premiere in Seattle.
For Moran, the very fact that his piece has led to such different presentations only reflects the complexity of the story itself.
"When [Seattle director] Dennis Coleman first got up to introduce me to his chorus, he said, 'What really interested Bob [about] that boat was what was happening in the men's room,' " says Moran, sitting at his home in Philadelphia. He likes the line, but the thinking is just too limited.
"Thaaaank you, Dennis," he says, all but rolling his eyes, "but the [real] story is about people from such a wide spectrum leaving their wives and families and getting the hell out. They were a minority hounded out of their space, just like the Jews, the Palestinians, the Bosnians. I saw Rwanda on the news the other night night and thought, this just doesn't stop. The difference, as Jim [Skofield] pointed out, is that this minority left because of love."
Skofield had first broached the subject to Moran in the wake of their 1994 chamber opera, "The Dracula Diary." Both had read Richard Ellmann's acclaimed 1987 biography of Wilde independently, and the germ of "Night Passage" had struck them both.
"The Ellmann biography is amazing both in terms of readability and organization," says Moran, pausing for a beat. "Almost as good as one of Kitty Kelley's books."
Despite their obvious shared affinity for theatricality and shock value, Moran confesses a longtime antipathy to Wilde. "When I was a student in San Francisco in the '60s, I used to argue that Wilde was such a fraud," he says. "I found him just too campy, too faggoty, too 'look how clever I am'--everything I didn't like."
But, he admits, that was before he saw the plays staged, with actors who truly understood the intention behind their lines. "I thought 'Salome' was nice and bloody and more than just people standing around saying cute things, but what I had missed was how he was able to trash so viciously the characters he was putting on stage. Once you get that perspective, it's like, 'Oh, Oscar, my man.' "
"Night Passage," however, avoids both the man and the work to concentrate on the legend. Wilde himself is mentioned only by a chorus of newsboys at the beginning. The focus turns immediately to less celebrated members of society, who view the proceedings and the hate-filled atmosphere of London through the prism of their own lives and experience.
One factor in Moran's aversion toward Wilde may have been that, having studied the rigorous 12-tone system of composition in Vienna, Moran didn't place irony or wit very high on his aesthetic agenda. Born in Colorado in 1937, Moran left at age 20 to study with Hans Erich Apostel, the last of the original serialists. When he returned to the U.S. in 1959, Moran found a less restrictive modernism in his studies with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College (as did his classmates Steve Reich and future Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh). At Mills, Moran broke the serial shackles and began to explore graphic notation and multidisciplinary collaborations.
Still, despite some theatrical leanings--he appeared in his first play at age 7 and later became a self-confessed Wagner junkie--Moran was slow in coming to the stage. No matter, though, as his instrumental pieces were theatrical enough. A series of short-term residencies in Europe and the United States inspired environmental pieces like "Hallelujah," for Bethlehem, Pa., involving the city's 20 marching bands, 40 church choirs, organs, carillons, and rock 'n' roll groups, and "Pachelbel Promenade," commissioned by Graz, Austria, for chamber orchestra and chorus, jazz ensemble, guitars and Styrian folk instruments.