|JOSEPH CONRAD’S THE SECRET AGENT REINCARNATES AS AN OPERA
Discussions and preparations were underway over the past several years with Michael Nutter, artistic director of Atlanta’s Capitol City Opera Company. An independent opera company and a major artistic outlet for the Southeast region, the CCOC has made it a part of its mission to feature important American operas and works of musical theater, as well as less commonly performed works of the genre. The Secret Agent by Curtis Bryant (music) and Allen Reichman (libretto) is the company’s first world premiere offering, with musical direction under Catherine Giel and orchestra direction by Michael Giel. Scenic designer, Max Sanchez created original sets for the new production. Production manager and lighting designer Nina Gooch, costume designer Pamela Cole, and makeup and hair designer Dusti Meeks helped to create a dark 1930’s atmosphere.Starring in the lead roles were baritone Wade Thomas as Verloc (the Secret Agent) and soprano Elizabeth Claxton as Winnie, Verloc’s wife. Other major characters included tenor Tim Miller in the role of Alexander Ossipon, one of Verloc’s anarchist colleagues; baritone Iván Segovia as Karl Yundt, the bomb maker; and Victoria Hawkins as Anna Mikhailis, the feminist. Countertenor Chase Davidson took on the role of Stevie, Winnie’s developmentally disabled younger brother, who is given the unfortunate task of delivering Verloc’s bomb. The role of Mr. Vladimir, the villain who concocts a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, was sung by tenor Keith Lee. The Mother was sung by mezzo-soprano Katelyn Neumann.
With the Capitol City Opera Company premiere performances of The Secret Agent now a reality, the project that I have worked on over the past nine years, under the titles of “The Anarchists” and “The Anarchist,” is once again offered with Joseph Conrad’s original title – The Secret Agent.
I completed the piano-vocal score in 2007, which turned out to be the 100th anniversary of the novel’s publication, with the additional subtitle “A Simple Tale.” Its conversion from novel to opera was not, however, a simple task.
When I first was approached by Allen Reichman to set his libretto, we began our discussion on what characters from the original novel had to be cut and/or re-worked to accommodate the more balanced requirements of a music drama. Below is a brief look into some of the decisions that both composer and librettist made along the path to the creation of the opera The Secret Agent. Familiarity with the novel may be helpful in following my commentary. –Plot Synopsis–
WHY THE SECRET AGENT?
It is not surprising that The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has received renewed attention in the century after its publication. Tom Reiss of the New York Times described it as “the classic novel for the post 9/11 age” (NYT Book Review, Sept. 11, 2005). The genesis of the story is based on real events that
The strength of the story and its characters has inspired many adaptations for the stage and the screen, including the 1936 film Sabotage by Alfred Hitchcock and the 1996 film The Secret Agent, starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gérard Depardieu, and Robin Williams.1 A new array of dramatic treatments has proliferated in the past decade. Among these have been three new operas, all independently created and all quite distinct in their approach to both plot and characters. While it is not uncommon for classic literary works to receive multiple adaptations – think, for example of Romeo and Juliet – Conrad’s novel presents such complex personalities, twists of plot, and political and social commentary that no two treatments need bear much similarity, even down to the principle cast of characters, as long as the drama and its tragic ramifications are adequately conveyed.
Of course, when Allen Reichman wrote his libretto and I began my setting of his words to music, neither of us had any idea that two other operas on the same topic were also underway.2
FROM NOVEL TO LIBRETTO
The transformation of this work from psychological political-thriller and moral tale to opera is problematic from the onset. A first look at the full cast of characters in the novel makes it clear that, in order to give the critical elements of the story due attention and to make production more practical both for voice and stage, it becomes necessary to trim the number of players. A further nagging problem is that there is an overbalance of male to female characters. Only three women gain any significant place in the narrative, while as many as ten male figures contribute to the plot.
By the time I first read his libretto in 2004, Allen Reichman had already undertaken to cut some of the less relevant characters from the storyline, and he had put the events in temporal order, so that the unfolding timeline was easier to follow from a dramatic perspective. (Conrad jumps around from event to event like a time traveling firefly.) Reichman had also greatly expanded the dialog and, in some cases treated the text poetically, in a way that lent itself favorably to aria, arioso and ensemble. After showing the prospective libretto to my colleague Dwight Coleman, then director of opera studies at Georgia State University School of Music, we both agreed that the work needed more women and fewer men in the cast if it were to be even considered for a possible student production.
There was never any question that the key players had to be Verloc (the secret agent), his wife Winnie, her developmentally disabled younger brother Stevie, and some appropriate collection of the secret agent’s colorful political associates. The role of the embassy first secretary Vladimir seemed essential, since it is his concoction of the bombing scheme that sets off the entire tragedy. Finally, some representation of law enforcement had to be present. I suggested cutting out the role of the Assistant Commissioner along with the subplot of interoffice rivalry between him and Chief Inspector Heat. While intriguing, this further complication of the dramatic knot seemed unnecessary, as long as the law was duly represented in its role of nabbing the criminal. But the elimination of the Assistant Commissioner also made the extremely minor role of his wife and her oblique relationship with the anarchist Michaelis irrelevant to the point of being a mere footnote. One male, but also one female character scratched.
Another problem with the characters in Verloc’s circle, is that some of them disappear, never to become fully developed. Karl Yundt, the old militant who frightens Stevie in the parlor scene, only appears once in the original, while the Professor — the bomb maker– requires a separate scene within the less compact construction of the novel. It seemed to me both reasonable and operatic to shorten the overall list of male characters that contribute to the plot, considering that both the old anarchist Yundt and the still-employed Professor hailed from roughly the same wavelength of the political spectrum. And so…in our Secret
Agent, Yundt became a bit more academic while retaining his evangelical manners. This enabled the same recognizable personage and voice type to appear again in the second act to espouse his terroristic views in the context of the aftermath of the explosion of the bomb that he himself had constructed and sold to Verloc.
…AND SEX CHANGES
With the expansion of Yundt’s role, Allen came to the realization that there was absolutely no reason why Verloc’s friend Michaelis necessarily had to be male at all. This opened up an entirely new realm of creative possibility by expanding the role to include among Verloc’s circle of revolutionaries a feminist. With the “sex change” to Anna Mikhailis (I suggested the more slavic spelling), even greater dialog and disagreement amongst the comrades became possible. We modeled Mikhailis’ new incarnation partly on the real-life feminist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), an advocate for women’s suffrage, who was a contemporary of Conrad’s. It also made a better argument that Winnie might allow Stevie to go off and spend time “in the country” with a sympathetic female friend, a writer who happened to associate with her husband’s rather unclear “diplomatic” profession, rather than a revolutionary ex-convict who is under constant surveillance by Scotland yard, as the original character is portrayed in the novel. Score one point for the girls….
FROM PANTS ROLE TO COUNTERTENOR
It also seemed logical to design the role of Winnie’s young brother Stevie for mezzo-soprano voice, in keeping with hundreds of years of operatic tradition in the portrayal of adolescent males. Creating a pants role added to the balance of women’s voices, and as such would improve the opera’s production potential. Two of the scenes that received workshop performances at Georgia State University (2005 and 2006) featured a mezzo-soprano voice in the role of Stevie. The new Capitol City Opera production of The Secret Agent featured the talents of Atlanta countertenor, Chase Davidson. The choice of countertenor for the role by director Michael Nutter brought the sense of drama even closer to the spirit of the original. After all, with a male in the role, there is no issue of hips or mannerisms for the audience to struggle with in assessing the character’s identity.
A further defining aspect of Stevie’s character is his peculiar disability. From Conrad’s descriptions in the novel, Dr. Reichman’s diagnosis of Stevie’s disability has him suffering from what would be clinically described as high functioning autism. The boy demonstrates repetitive movements, limitations of speech, and outbursts of uncontrollable panic, all of which can be symptoms of this condition. In our attempt to give his character enough lines to constitute aria and ensemble work, Allen crafted his sentences to be short and lacking in the use of the first person pronoun.
(to be continued)
1Curiously,Robin Williams, who plays The Professor – the bomb maker – is not acknowledged in the film’s credits. (back to WHY THE SECRET AGENT)
2The first adaptation to reach the stage was by British composer Simon Wills, which received a premiere in 2006 at the Feldkirch Festival. The other one (and there could be more) is by composer Michael Dellaira and librettist J D McClatchy. It received a premiere at Hunter College in 2011 in a production by New York’s Center for Contemporary Opera. I stumbled upon this fact when I started to explore this company’s new works program shortly before completing my opera in 2007. This put that organization somewhat off limits for my purposes, at least in New York, at least for the time being.
(back to WHY THE SECRET AGENT)