Opera Meets Literature: Usher House/The Canterville Ghost

Opera and literature have long been paired together. The early operas of Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Handel were primarily, if not exclusively, based on tales derived from Greek mythology. As opera expanded outside of the royal court and into the public following the classical period in the mid-18th century, so did the story lines — librettists and composers began finding inspiration outside of mythology, but still within the written word.

On June 22, LA Opera stages the LA premiere of Gordon Getty’s double-bill Usher House and The Canterville Ghost. Labelled quirkily as the “Scare Pair,” both operas take inspiration from 19th century works of literature.

Dominic Armstrong (front) as Edgar Allen Poe, with Keith Phares as Roderick Usher and Jamielyn Duggan as Madeline Usher in "Usher House" (Photo: Steven Pisano / Center for Contemporary Opera)

Dominic Armstrong (front) as Edgar Allen Poe, with Keith Phares as Roderick Usher and Jamielyn Duggan as Madeline Usher in “Usher House” (Photo: Steven Pisano / Center for Contemporary Opera)

Though adaptations from highly regarded works of fiction can be seen during the classical period, it became more of a standard practice in the 19th century. Popular examples include Donizetti’s bel canto gem Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Sir Walter Scott’s chilling The Bride of Lammermoor and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse of the same name. More contemporary examples from the 20th and 21st centuries include John Harbison’s 1999 opera of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Gerald Barry’s adaption of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being EarnestUsing published works as operatic inspiration has long been in practice, and Getty’s Usher House and The Canterville Ghost follows the lead of these iconic masterpieces.

Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher, Getty’s interpretation puts Poe into the action as the narrator. In his program notes, Getty explains, “I found myself taking liberties. To start, I have made Poe himself the narrator who lives to tell the tale. More radically, I have conceived him and the doomed siblings as types of an antebellum warmth and gallantry  which hardly exist anywhere in the prose of the real Poe, and must be counter to his purposes here.”

The story recounts the tale of Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline. After Madeline dies, Roderick and the narrator begin seeing changes not only in their mood, but in their surroundings as well. The tale is eerie and macabre, though very much in Poe’s style. Deemed as “the architect of the modern short story” by the Poetry Foundation, the story itself fits well in an operatic setting. However, the short story itself contains almost no dialogue between characters it’s all explained through the narrator’s perception.

Getty continues in his notes by stating: “I have added other gothic staples forbidden knowledge, a Faustian pact, ghostly ancestors – and have shifted all into a tale of good and evil and redemption. Good means Poe and the siblings, evil means Primus and the ancestors, and Madeline becomes the agent of redemption.”

This isn’t the first time The Fall of the House of Usher has been adapted for the operatic stage. Claude Debussy used it as his inspiration for his opera La chute de la maison Usher — the work was never finished, though attempts have been made to perform. Perhaps the most popular version is Philip Glass’ adaptation that premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 1988, and has since been performed at Nashville Opera, Long Beach Opera and Chicago Opera Theater. And there is even a rock opera by composer Peter Hammill, who worked on the opera for nearly two decades when a recording was finally released in 1991. The story obviously draws composers, but what about it makes it so appealing in an operatic setting? Perhaps it is the chilling way it deals with family relations, or the elements of fantasy that are interwoven in the plot. In any case, the tale make for a memorable night at the opera.

Matthew Burns as Sir Simon in "The Canterville Ghost" (photo: Steven Pisano / Center for Contemporary Opera)

Matthew Burns as Sir Simon in “The Canterville Ghost” (photo: Steven Pisano / Center for Contemporary Opera)

The Canterville Ghost differs not only in content but in timbre as well. Noticeably the more lighthearted out of the two, Wilde’s short story chronicles the Otis family, who move into the English Canterville estate despite the presence of Sir Simon de Canterville, a ghost who unsuccessfully tries to scare its residents. In a strange twist, it is actually the Otis family, specifically the young Otis twins, who frighten Sir Simon. The only resident who takes any interest to Sir Simon is the Virginia Otis, the teenage daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Otis.

Virginia is the only one who shows mercy on Sir Simon. Unlike the rest of her family, she takes it upon herself to get to know him. Sir Simon reveals his past to the young girl. It is through his unlikely friendship with Virginia that he is finally able to pass on to the “other side.”

Again in the program notes, Getty notes the stories’ likeliness to a romantic comedy.

“The do’s and don’ts of romantic comedy are pretty much eternal,” continue Getty in his program notes. “In The Canterville Ghost, Wilde has given us, in short story form, one such romantic comedy of unique beauty and genius, though with heartbreak and redemption along the way. We laugh and cry, and are enriched. I added music, and some words, with the same intention.”

Scare Pair opens at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on June 22. Click here for more information or tickets.

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