The Power and Poetry of Dracula

There is elegance in darkness--in the way night spills over a landscape and invites terrors both real and imagined to stalk freely upon the earth. Huddled in our beds, eyes wide and knuckles clenched, we wait for fear to materialize, for the alluring evil that is at once external and deeply internal to appear. Perhaps that is why generations have been drawn to the story of Dracula. In literature, film and theater, monsters have taken every form from brain-sucking aliens to flesh-eating zombies to homicidal leprechauns, but most lack the human element that makes Dracula so exceedingly seductive. We all have the potential to corrupt and kill, and Dracula gives this potential a face (and occasionally, a set of very dangerous incisors). He is the incarnation of the evil that lurks in every heart, and people continue to connect with the redemptive tragedy of his life, un-death and final surrender.

This romance between good and evil has undergone many transformations over the years. From Bram Stoker's novel to F.W. Murnau's disturbing silent film to sacrilegious modern spins (Keanu Reeves, anyone?), the original character has been young and old, handsome and gruesome, pathetic and powerful but always torn between infinite darkness and salvation. Such a story is suited to all forms of dramatic performance, but none so innately as opera. Yet the story had never been written for the opera stage until a few years ago when a famous composer and a famous poet became fascinated with the ultimate villain--Noseferatu.

The composer is Alva Henderson, an acclaimed singer and writer of original, contemporary operas such as Medea, The Last of the Mohicans and West of Washington Square, and he is known for his instinctual, heart-felt lyrics and stirring melodies. The poet is Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford and Harvard who began as a literary scholar and worked his way from a business executive to a professional columnist and critic to being appointed the current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts by President Bush. Though they have always shared a passion for the dramatic arts, the two had never worked together until Henderson began looking for a new literary partner.

"We knew one another only slightly, but he set some of my poems to music. We both loved the results. When he suggested we work together on an opera, I immediately agreed. My only condition was that we choose a subject I could enter imaginatively," Gioia said.

That subject turned out to be the Dracula myth, inspired by Gioia's reading of an analysis of Murnau's Nosferatu and an afternoon spent walking through Northern California's Armstrong Redwood Grove, something Gioia calls "a masterpiece of Gothic Romanticism." Although Henderson was skeptical at first, he soon saw the intrigue in setting the timeless legend to music. The key was to come at the story from a very un-Hollywood angle--that of the female lead. Thus Ellen, a conflicted yet willful character, would be the one to challenge the prince of darkness; and unlike so many recent movies, woman and beast would be equally matched in strength and passion.

"Too often, the woman tends to be a helpless, hapless heroine," Gioia said, citing Stoker's use of the feminine as sometimes good, sometimes slightly bad and always weak. "Murnau's Ellen is both strong and complicated, someone who has psychic strength equal to the vampire's. Most great operas have a strong and complicated woman at the center, and this opera is as much about the heroine as it is the villain."

As for the villain, Gioia's vision is again refreshingly unique. He based much of the design on Milton's epic portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and Lord Byron's The Vampyre, a collaborative work about a doomed, tragic figure that is the first literary representation of Dracula.

"I didn't want my vampire to be a Hollywood monster. I wanted him to represent evil but also to embody the human attraction to evil. Nosferatu is very much an opera about the struggle between good and evil. In order to have a good struggle, you must present the attraction on both sides--that dark, destructive evil that you see all the time in society and the fact that that destructive evil has a fascination. I don't exonerate it, but I show it directly [in this opera.] It's an exploration of evil," he said.

Writing the actual text or libretto was a welcome challenge for Gioia. Having worked so much in poetry judged mostly on literary quality, he had to modify his technique to create something that was still evocative and graceful, but also inspiring to a composer and cast that desperately needed to connect to the soul of the story.

"I wrote differently for the operatic stage and heard my language differently when set to music," said Gioia. "The poetry became simpler, more direct, more emotional, and I trusted my inspiration and wrote as it guided me."

After four years of writing, revising and testing the prose against the orchestral translation, the libretto and score were finished. It was then up to Gioia and Henderson to find a cast, and their choices included Opera Idaho's artistic director Douglas Nagel. Having worked with the 30-year-old, Boise-based organization for four years now, the talented baritone has done a lot to jump-start the outreach program and get more community members involved. One of the best ways to do so, according to Nagel, is to present operas like Nosferatu that deal with a subject that appeals to a much wider audience.

"You can't take Hansel and Gretel to high school kids--you'll miss them. Then they grow up and become the group of people who would never go to an opera and neither would their friends," Nagel said. "So we're opening dress rehearsals to them at special prices in the hope that they might respond."

Way outside the teenage norm, Nagel made his operatic debut at age 19 and has performed and directed countless productionsthroughout the world over the years, including one of the short, preview showcases of Nosferatu Henderson staged at Colorado's Crested Butte Center for the Arts.

"I really dug the music, it was darkly delicious," Nagel said. And then a year ago, he heard Gioia reading excerpts from the libretto at a book festival, and the poet asked if he would be interested in working with the music again. "Right after that, Dana called and said he was about to be appointed and that he couldn't sign any outside contracts once it was official. So I scrambled for a budget, scrambled for board votes ... They hadn't even heard the music, but they went for it, and we got Dana signed and contracted before he took office," Nagel said.

Responsible for much of the production after Gioia was sworn in, Nagel became more and more enveloped in the story. As he began exploring the haunting words and music of Nosferatu, he found himself drawn to the role of Count Orlock, Dracula's more prehistoric, melancholy, believable incarnation.

"It's not like I'm flying around the stage and biting people with dripping fangs, but the story will get people in the seats. Once they're there, they can hate it, but at least it will get them talking," said Nagel, referring to the task of getting audiences, especially young audiences interested in and responsive to an art form that has too often been pigeonholed as very serious, tedious and foreign. Gioia dealt with the same conflict in writing the opera and tried to gear it more toward modern American spectators who may or may not have experienced opera before.

"Opera is a slightly off-putting form. I didn't like it the first time I saw it--it was the Marriage of Figaro, and even though I read the synopsis, I had no idea what was going on and the music was just notes in the air," he said. "I wanted to make Nosferatu contemporary and in English so the theatrical experience would be in real time, allowing people to identify with the characters rather than focus on the cultural and linguistic distance." He explained that to use the English language successfully in opera, it had to be written in poetry--beautiful, concise poetry. "I tried to make the language unforgettable," he said.

The result is an ancient legend set to music that is the best of classical and contemporary performance art. Nagel describes Henderson's composition as "modern music that's sing-able with soaring lines, arching phrases, high notes that you wait for, arias, duets and trios with lots of augmented chords--all the icing." Similarly pleased with Gioia's contribution, Nagel said that his writing is so beautiful and moving that it "just flows into you."

"It's hard music but it's easy to learn because I could understand what these men were trying to do," Nagel said. "It was so great to be able to have them here to ask questions about the minutiae. You can't do that with Puccini and Verde."

With accredited soprano Susan Gundunas as Ellen and a host of vocal and instrumental impresarios filling out the cast, the production promises to be one of the best new operas to hit the stage in years and the first world premiere ever to debut in Boise. While individual arias and duets have been performed all over the country, audiences have never seen the completed work with all the lighting, costumes, sets and fanfare that make opera such a treat. The premiere will be a joint one, starting in Billings, Montana where Nagel spends half of his time directing and acting with the Rimrock Opera Company, and then it will move to Boise, where Gioia says 8 to 10 well-known, national critics will attend the first show. This kind of exposure is almost unheard of in a town the size of Boise, and Opera Idaho's executive director Julie Kilgrow described the resulting feeling in the OI office as "up to our eyebrows in alligators."

With a crew of three (including herself), Kilgrow has faced the challenge that many brave and devoted directors face in arts organizations all over Idaho. There never seems to be enough money to support an adequate staff, so a few dedicated individuals end up taking on amazing workloads to bring worthwhile events to unwitting audiences.

"If I had been here a year ago when this project was proposed, I would have told them not to do it. It has taken enormous resources, funds and man-power to build an entire set, make all of the costumes and have such a small company learn entirely new material that has never been performed," Kilgrow said. "But the money is coming in. We've gotten a wonderful response from the community and are hoping to sell out." As of now, nearly half the seats in the Morrison Center are taken, but a full house is the only way to truly welcome a world premiere that involves so many giants of the art world. And like Gioia, Henderson and Nagel, Kilgrow sees the amazing potential for growth after such a milestone. "It's exciting and wonderful for Opera Idaho," she said. "It puts us on a different level to have undertaken something so ambitious, and the Board of Directors and everyone involved deserves some applause for helping to make this happen."

With the music learned, the staging perfected and the special effects nailed down, all that's left for Nosferatu's cast to do is wait and sink deeper into the feel of the work. With all of his duties as chairman of the biggest arts organization in the country, Gioia has his plate full with other things, but he will be at the performance on November 6. "I'm very proud of this libretto, it's one of the best pieces I've ever done," he said. "It has helped me explore things in my own imagination that don't come out in my other poetry, so it's valuable as a literary work and as a creative breakthrough to new material. Once I'm done being chairman, I think I'll do a lot more opera ... it is bigger than life."

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