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The Sexual Evolution: Nashville Opera’s Three Way explores sex without moralizing

 

With their 2017 season opener Three Way, the Nashville Opera hopes to change the public’s perception as to what exactly opera is. Or isn’t.

To some, the word “opera” calls to mind culture and distinction, one of the last highbrow entertainments left in a world increasingly in thrall to appetites both crass and craven.

To others — fairly or not — opera smacks of elitism, of a dying art form forged in privilege and awash in old money; a relic no longer relevant to our times. To them, even the word itself serves as a signifier for the overwrought and sentimental, the goo-ily romantic and saccharine.

And yet, when you get down to it, an opera is just an orchestrated piece of music: an extended composition, sung by a troupe, to instrumental accompaniment. Which sounds like something that should be right up our (Printer’s) alley, right? With all the musicians here, and world-class singers and writers, you’d think it a natural fit. And yet, outside of the Grand Ole “Opry,” and its three-minute, radio-ready pop arias, Nashville’s connection to opera proper is about as tenuous as Steven Tyler’s connection to country music.

Three Way — an admittedly cheeky title for a three-act play that’s about, well, sex — challenges these preconceptions on a (shall we say?) visceral level. It’s about more than sex, of course — in much the same way that sex is about more than sex — but it does wear its sauciness on its sleeve.

The first act is a commentary on technology’s role in courtship — courtesy one person and one android. The second act is about the power dynamic between two people: a dominatrix and her client. The third, appropriately enough, explores the world of multiple partners, sometimes all at once.

Composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote say that the triptych-style format allows for considerable flexibility in storytelling.

From a practical standpoint, having a set of three short, one-act operas that can either work as a full evening feature or individually gives us more opportunities to have people hear and see our operas,” says Paterson. “Musically speaking, a triptych allows for a great deal of variety and contrast, and also allows us to cover a wide variety of topics, even if there are central themes binding everything together.”

“I like doing a story arc in 30 or 40 minutes,” says Cote. “Maybe it’s from growing up on TV and comics, and loving anthology formats like American Horror Story or The Twilight Zone. I love seeing opera, but, let’s be honest, it’s easy to get bored, whether it’s four hours of Wagner or a new piece that drags on. Not boring audiences, providing plenty of jolts of pleasure and surprise, was part of our plan with Three Way. It’s not like there’s no precedent: Puccini has Il trittico, and Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are often on a double-bill.”

Cote says he and Paterson owned early on the fact that they were trying to make musical theatre for what they term a “21st-century audience.”

“For this piece, the overall tone is comical, fast, smart, and twisty. There’s melancholy and darkness, too, but we meant each act to be relatable the way a good play or musical can be. It’s still sophisticated, complicated music, but tonal and melodic. Longing and loneliness, jealousy, sexual obsession — they’re all classic motors for comedy and tragedy. Opera is no stranger to them. But yes, we wanted to create operas that were 100% contemporary (even futuristic) and — this is important — didn’t moralize. We deal with sex workers, an android lover and a ‘swinglife’ party, but we’re not trying to impose a moral agenda. A seasoned opera person will notice echoes from the classics. If you have been going to opera for decades, Three Way is an ‘of course’ show for you. If Three Way is your first opera, it may be your gateway opera.”

Reaching new audiences while working in traditional formats means you must wrestle with a particularly difficult question, namely, how do you balance incorporating aspects of the time in which you live in without making 'timely' art that doesn't stand the test of time? Cote says it’s a delicate balancing act, and a question they pondered often.

“As the librettist, I wanted the characters’ dialogue to be realistic but not banal, a little heightened, but not gratingly poetic,” he says. “Sometimes abstract, poetic language is needed in libretti, but that takes skill and a good ear for character. Some of the arias are more traditionally song-like — practically Broadway-type lyrics. But yeah, you’ll hear people singing lines that are like everyday speech: joking, sassing, arguing. The last act, Masquerade, is set at a swinger’s party, in which, yes, there’s a lot of action. You know how they say, ‘Show, don’t tell’ in writing? You can’t really do that when depicting an orgy. And you can’t exactly ‘tell’ what’s going on, having people describing what they just did offstage. So our solution was to create a comedy of manners, in which the language is euphemistic and polite.”

Paterson and Cote’s reboot of the popular opera didn’t necessarily stop at merely parsing the language their characters would speak; both noted that it was important to them that the characters themselves speak of the times they live in, too.

“Not to speak on Dave’s behalf, but we were definitely a little self-conscious about tackling these issues as two straight — yet, hopefully — sensitive, guys,” Paterson says. “Look, this is art, and part of the creator’s job, especially with opera, is that you imagine yourself as the characters you’re creating. I mean, with the false logic that art can only be created by people who are the characters, nothing would be created! I’m pretty sure Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, is not a drug dealer in real life, at least I hope not, and many people who play gay characters are not gay themselves, or vice-versa.”

“Any worthwhile art is born of empathy and from challenging yourself, putting yourself in each and every character whatever the gender, orientation or background,” Cote says. “We knew if we wrote three one-act operas with adult content, and they came across as titillating, or cis-male-centric or heteronormative, that just wouldn’t be interesting to anyone, especially us. I could write a story about a man with his android girlfriend, but, there’d be an ‘ick’ factor to overcome. I’m more engaged by the strong, beautiful woman who has the android lover — what’s she looking for? And in Safe Word, we have a dominatrix and her client in which an element of danger arises. We deliberately play with the roles of victim and aggressor here, knowing full well that a lot of opera — past and present — victimizes female characters to generate drama. For 400 years, women have had the crap kicked out of them in opera. We wanted to flip that. If there’s one big message in Three Way, to me, it’s that sex is evolving. Gender and orientation keep morphing and shifting; technology overwhelms us, and we want to capture that on stage. Sex is a revolutionary force in culture. We want to create an opera that’s part of the conversation.”

 

Three Way makes its world premier in Nashville before going to Brooklyn in June. Showtimes are January 27 at 8 p.m., January 28 at 8 p.m., and January 29 at 2 p.m. at TPAC’s James K. Polk Theater. For more information, go to http://www.nashvilleopera.org/three-way

For a chance to win tickets, enter our giveaway (ends Wednesday, Jan. 25).

 

 

 

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