Friday, October 31, 2014

State of the Art, and Art of the State: A Gender Bend in Alison Moritz's The Cradle Will Rock

Yesterday Corinne Hayes called us to action with an exciting look at The Cradle Will Rock. Today will look at a different way this explosive piece questions our notions of power and gender.

Director Alison Moritz is currently the Resident Assistant Director at Minnesota Opera. She has also served on the directing staffs at Wolf Trap Opera Company, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Atlanta Opera, and Chautauqua Opera.

Together with set designer Charles Murdock Lucas, costume designer Dina Perez and lighting designer Kyle Grant, Alison formed a team to look at this list of American operas. Here she discusses the collaboration.

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Almost immediately, our team discovered a mutual drive to engage with the world through art that speaks to our own political and social experiences, and we spent a lot of time considering each opera and its relevance today. We were struck by the timeliness of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, a work that felt uncannily apt given the context of this summer’s labor disputes at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Cradle Will Rock is structured as a series of flashbacks and vignettes, exposing the members of a so-called Liberty Committee in Steeltown, USA. One by one, we learn how the pillars of the community (including leaders of the church, newspaper, education, arts, and medicine) fell under the sway of Mr. Mister's empire, selling themselves for power and prestige and ultimately becoming part of a societal machine that treats the working class as disposable.

I won't go into the specifics of our production concept here, but there's one detail of our concept which I believe is germane to the discussion at hand this week at Opera Think Tank - Idea Power from Women


As a team, we wanted to bring The Cradle Will Rock into the 21st century. After some discussion, it became apparent that we could not imagine a millennial Liberty Committee without a single female member, so we decided to recast the role of Editor Daily as a woman. Casting a female Editor Daily requires very few changes to the existing text, but it creates a series of subtle but important realignments in the power dynamics of the opera. 


Is this casting in keeping with Marc Blitzstein’s original intent? I cannot say for certain. However, since both Mr. and Mrs. Mister threaten and bribe members of the Steeltown middle class for their own gain, I would assert that any implied misogyny in the original libretto is peripheral, a byproduct of Blitzstein’s era, and it should not distract from the larger questions at hand in the opera: Who do the people work for? Does the engine of labor serve the many, or just the one? Is the selling of one’s efforts ever honorable or respectable?

1920s flapper Louise Brooks in a man's suit
Over the past few decades, color-blind casting has slowly entered the mainstream for both opera and theatre. Costume designer Dina Perez’s renderings for our concept include singers from ethnically diverse backgrounds as members of the Liberty Committee in order to reflect the changing face of power today. However, since casting choices like this require no adjustments to Blitzstein’s original text and music, there is less pressure to justify them artistically, even though they are part of a charged debate about race and power in America.

And so, my question is this - as ideas regarding gender and sexuality become more and more fluid, how can the opera community continue to engage in this discussion onstage? 

I’m encouraged to see many newly commissioned works that address this topic - including the recent performances of As One at American Opera Projects, where mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf shared the role of a transgender protagonist.
 

Perhaps even more importantly, I’m inspired by the current wave of opera directors reexamining the standard repertoire in order to represent the world as they see it today. Through productions like these, we are making the case that opera - far from being a museum piece - can be truly state of the art.

Learn more about Alison Moritz's work at www.alisonmoritz.com

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