Widely admired for its attention to new works, the Houston Grand Opera seems to have developed a sub-specialty: world premieres of operas about American political figures in trouble. They’ve preemed “Willie Stark” (Huey Long thinly disguised), “Nixon in China” and now “Harvey Milk,” currently playing to considerable acclaim (if not quite full houses) at Houston’s Wortham Center in alternation with a new staging of “Porgy and Bess.”
“Harvey Milk” will be taken up by the New York City Opera in April, and by the San Francisco Opera, but not until the fall of 1996; the gloriously overdesigned “Porgy” arrives at the Los Angeles Music Center for a two-week run on June 7.
Given the predictability of its plot and the temptations inherent in its setting, “Harvey Milk” comes across as an evening of musical theater both savvy and snazzy. It is possible that Christopher Alden’s inventive staging makes the work sound even better than it is; it certainly moves across a few rough spots — the agonizingly protracted final choral litany for one, with music meandering past any number of stopping places, but made memorable by a simple, moving candlelight procession.
But there is also eloquence in Michael Korie’s libretto and substance in Stewart Wallace’s music. It isn’t always original substance, of course. The score is something of a pastiche, but so was Harvey Milk’s life. A recurrent motif from Puccini’s “Tosca” neatly underlines the flamboyance of Milk’s own style. Bits of “West Side Story,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” drum ostinatos from any number of Maria Montez jungle flicks and a smidgen of “Floradora” flit by: the standard repertory for the genre (as if no homosexual ever listened to a Beethoven string quartet).
The opera moves its central character from his New York closet to his liberating arrival in San Francisco, to his election as a city supervisor and his murder by gay-hating fellow supervisor Dan White. The second act — San Francisco in the glory days of the Castro, street dancing, Halloween drag, Milk in a hilarious Mary Poppins bit and, midway, a moving love duet for Milk and his longtime companion Scott — is totally brilliant.
An excellent cast, headed by Robert Orth as Milk and Raymond Very as his nemesis White, works hard against the opera’s rather noncommittal vocal lines. Director Alden probably worked hardest of all, and it shows. Some credit must also go to the Houston Grand Opera’s general director David Gockley, who in his 25-plus years has fed his audience of Texas big money a challenging and diverse operatic fare.
Houston does not generate the Los Angeles variety of automatic standing ovation, but at one performance of “Harvey Milk,” gentlemen in tuxedos and their sequin-bedecked wives stood and cheered.