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Performing Arts

Anticipating ‘The Hours’

“The Hours” is up next for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD production. (Courtesy)
On the wings of books and film, opera redefines despair

The buzz is on for the Metropolitan Opera’s next Live in HD production. “The Hours,” is a new opera with many layers to unpack and many precedents to consider. The New York production will be livestreamed at 10:55 a.m. Saturday in the Vallecito Room at Fort Lewis College.

Virginia Woolf’s 1923 novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” started it all. Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, “The Hours.” reconfigured Woolf’s story into a three-part structure about life’s struggles, regret and despair. Cunningham imaginatively connected three women through Woolf’s book itself. In 1923, Woolf is writing “Mrs. Dalloway” in Richmond, England. In 1949, Laura Brown is reading it in Los Angeles. And in 1999, Clarissa Vaughan appears to be living Mrs. Dalloway’s life as she spends a day planning a party for a poet friend. He calls her Mrs. Dalloway and once was her lover but is now dying of AIDS.

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce have reimagined the entire Woolf-Cunningham edifice into a new opera. The question is: how will British Director Phelim McDermott stage a fluid, time-bending story with a full orchestra in the pit, a full chorus and three divas on stage and three very different story lines?

Cunningham’s novel covers a span of 72 years with separate protagonists. Reportedly, the opera attempts to integrate the women’s stories by doing what it does best – merging and heightening dramatic storytelling with music, dance, set design, light and sound effects, costuming, and the magic of staging.

McDermott has created a sequence of three rooms for each story: England, California and New York. The women’s spaces float in and out of view, on and offstage. Secondary characters appear and disappear, and the chorus often functions as ghosts.

If you go

WHAT: “The Hours,” The MET Live in HD.

WHEN: 10:55 a.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Vallecito Room, Student Union, Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive.

ADMISSION: Individual tickets: adults, $28; seniors, $25; Met members, $24; students, $12.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.metopera.org and www.durangoconcerts.com or call 247-7657.

NOTE: Sung in English.

Reviews and press reports suggest that composer Puts has written a score that mirrors a constantly changing focus. To ground each woman in her time and place, Puts has created a signature musical style that recurs as the storylines intertwine. Woolf’s musical environment is spare, quasi-Baroque in nature, not a 1920s-style pop genre. Brown’s, however, references Henry Mancini and even Lawrence Welk to set an uneasy contrast. Clarissa’s music is bold, sometimes brassy a la Bernstein or poignant a la Samuel Barber.

In one interview, McDermott said if you listen carefully, “you can hear the worlds butting up against each other.”

All that said about the origin, music, and concept for the new opera, it’s important to remember “The Hours” contains themes of despair and suicide. So, be forewarned, if you haven’t read the books or seen the film. In publicity notes and its program, The MET cautions patrons about the story’s darkness and suggests, as everyone is doing these days, that help is available.

One more layer needs to be added to the buzz around this production: the three divas starring as Virginia, Laura and Clarissa – Renèe Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara. The highly-anticipated return of soprano Fleming to the Met stage is the biggest news. She had retired from the Met, but she has continued to sing in concerts and in an occasional Broadway production. Fleming persuaded composer Puts, so the story goes, to consider an operatic version of “The Hours.” So, it’s only fair that she headlines as Clarissa.

Mezzo-soprano DiDonato, will sing the role of Woolf. And to complete the luminous trio, Broadway star O’Hara will portray Laura Brown. Met press materials pointedly remind readers that O’Hara is “operatically trained” and happens to also have a stellar Broadway career. Let this reporter quickly add: The snob factor that is part of opera’s history never dies. Just sayin’.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.