Of all the works of art that arose out of the AIDS epidemic, none has so completely transcended its origins as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Somewhere between its first productions in the early 1990s and now, Kushner’s epic play ceased being a work about AIDS and became one of the great American dramas of the last 50 years.
You might think its iconic status would scare away attempts at adaptation. But recent years have seen two significant transformations of Angels. First came the Emmy Award-winning HBO film starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in 2003. The next year brought the world premiere in Paris of an opera version by the Hungarian-born composer Peter Eötvös, with a libretto by his wife, Mari Mezei.
Tonight this new Angels touches down for the first time in America at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, courtesy of Opera Unlimited, a collaboration between Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Make no mistake: This is a major event, one Boston should be excited to be hosting. Eötvös has already produced high-profile operas based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Jean Genet’s The Balcony. His compositional voice is authentic and original, and his version of Angels is likely to be significant in its own right, not just as a chapter in the play’s afterlife.
Steven Maler, the opera’s director, underscores this point by making a comparison with the HBO version.
“I think what’s successful about the film is that it says, ‘This is not going to be a stage play, this is going to be a film. We’re going to make the choices we have to make to make this a film,’” Maler says during a recent break in rehearsals. “And I think that’s what Eötvös has done: ‘We’re going to make the choices we have to make to make it work as an opera.’”
Conductor Gil Rose agrees. “This is more of a musical commentary on Angels in America than a musical representation of it,” he says.
Eötvös’s music matches Kushner’s language for boldness and originality. It’s scored for an electro-acoustic ensemble of 21 players, plus three vocalists who sing with the instrumentalists rather than the cast.
Asked to describe the opera, the first word out of Rose’s mouth is “fantastical.” He goes on: “It’s made up of a musical language that’s very complicated and dense, but it’s psychedelic, almost, in its complexity and color, and how all the materials are supporting the dramatic impact.”
Hearing part one in rehearsal gave one a sense of a machine made up of a hundred interlocking parts - smoothly functioning but just a loose cog away from chaos. Meters change rapidly, the instrumental combinations are vivid and unexpected, and elements of jazz and cabaret sneak in. Car horns and elevators are heard, thanks to a pair of synthesizers. The cast members shift from singing to speaking in rhythm to speaking freely, sometimes within the space of a few seconds.
The opera retains the plot of the original drama, though it does condense a lot of the action. (The two-part play runs about seven hours; the opera about 2 1/2.) Eötvös and Mezei chose to emphasize the play’s supernatural aspect, especially the angel’s interactions with the earthly characters.
“Those fantasy elements, such as the angels, the characters’ marvelous hallucinations and dreams, were the basis for the opera,” Eötvös writes in an e-mail from Holland. “These were the things that determined its musical language.”
It’s that stress on the surreal that may have led some critics at the Paris premiere to charge the composer with abandoning the play’s political edge, its indictment of the Reagan-era climate of self-interest against which the epidemic unfolded. Eötvös responds that decisions about what to keep and what to cut were made mostly for the sake of coherence and keeping the opera to a reasonable length.
“The plot is clear and easy to follow and, as much as possible, keeps a lot of the play’s humor as well as its serious message,” he writes. “You can only think about it proportionally: If it has more politics, what should it have less of?”
Maler says, “Some of the political has been pulled out, but I think the passion and the anger that motivated Tony to write the play are still there.”
That passion and anger make extra emotional demands on the cast members, already dealing with a complex and difficult score. “I took up running because of this piece,” laughs Ja-Naé Duane, who sings the role of Hannah Pitt, a Mormon whose son comes out to her during the play. “We try to keep it light [during rehearsals] because it’s such a heavy piece. There’s so much humanity in it, a lot for each character to go through.”
As Angels was in rehearsals earlier this month, the world marked the 25th anniversary of the first officially reported cases of AIDS. It’s a dark anniversary, a grim reminder both of progress made and lives lost. And it has cast its shadows over this production.
“This epidemic is still very much with us,” Maler muses. “If you’re lucky enough to live in the US, with access to fantastic health care, it’s ‘manageable’ as a disease, though in other parts of the world it’s still a terrible catastrophe.”
“I think now we’re at a period where we’re through the crisis, through the post-crisis denial,” he continues. “And now we can look back and say that there were some really wonderful and extraordinary things happening. There were really wonderful moments of humanity, of people helping people through this terrible thing.”
Opera Unlimited presents Angels in America at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, tonight, tomorrow, Tuesday, and June 24. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.
- David Weininger, The Boston Globe
© Copyright 2006 New York Times Company