Long live the queen

Like Harvey Milk, it's big-hearted, feisty, in-your-face. The libretto is among the sharpest in contemporary opera
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The Independent Culture
An opera queen in life, the former mayor of San Francisco Harvey Milk has become a diva in death. Edward Seckerson watches an all-gay all-American hero discover his voice in redneck country Harvey Milk loved the opera. He lived and breathed the opera. The night before his assassination - 27 November 1978 - he was at the opera: Puccini's Tosca. But to be the subject of an opera, his very own diva? Now there's an irony. And in Houston, Texas? Who'd have thought the Milk train would ever stop there. But ithas. Harvey Milk, "the opera" - music by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Michael Korie - is the latest in a series of home-grown commissions that have put the enterprising Houston Grand Opera Company on the international map. And like Harvey Milk, the man,it's a big-hearted, feisty, in-your-face kind of event.

Milk was in everybody's face. This nice Jewish boy grew up in Long Island, dealt stock on Wall Street, and came out with a vengeance in San Francisco - he was America's first openly gay city official. Milk believed in an American dream without prejudice.He believed in the freedom and dignity of the individual - whatever their complexion - to share in that dream. He was the classic American folk hero of his time. They told him it was the wrong time. He mobilised the minorities. "A rainbow coalition of the disenfranchised", he called it, and took a bullet through the brain for his troubles. Dan White, his colleague on the San Francisco council (a "good" man, ex-policeman, ex-fireman), pulled the trigger. There was no place in his back yard for the disenfranchised. God and country, the family, apple pie - that was his American dream. Sounding familiar?

But White was entitled to his dream as surely as was Milk, and indeed one of the most striking aspects of Michael Korie's marvellous libretto (truly among the sharpest and most accomplished I have encountered in contemporary opera) is its even-handednessin the treatment, the "understanding", of Dan White. It really isn't at all a case of "paint him black". White's first aria is a homely Irish ballad, winningly sung by Raymond Very, all faded nostalgia and rosy remembrance. And yes, you do share in his sadness, a lost soul in a new world he doesn't begin to understand. For Milk, by constrast, remembrance is the spur for change: "My star is a pair of triangles: one pink, one yellow," he sings. "They overlap as I do." And as his aria rides forward on itswave-like ostinato, the pink and yellow triangles dominate the stage in a two-tone Star of David. Powerful and indelible.

Leonard Bernstein once expressed the hope that out of American musical theatre would emerge a uniquely American brand of Folk Opera. Korie and Wallace must be precisely the kind of team he had in mind. Harvey Milk, their fourth and evidently not last collaboration, is proudly, defiantly American. They write with an up-beat immediacy, they write for now.

Korie's text - poised between the lyrical and the irreverently polemical - takes Milk on a mythological journey to martyrdom: the modern-day Moses who never quite makes it to the promised land. And all the while, Wallace's score - a jubilantly eclectic mix of the American musical vernacular, both high- and decidedly low-brow - powers us (bags of percussion) through times which are a' changin'.

Wallace writes rapturously for the voice, often with a bluesy or Hebraic tang. He's not afraid to set the tessitura ecstatically high: Milk (Robert Orth) and Scott (Bradley Williams) well and truly hit the stairway to paradise in their "warm June night" duet. Then again, it might be argued that he is overly fond of the lyric arioso readily floated on cushions of harmony over pulsing minimalist currents. A touch more quirkiness (a la Sondheim) might generally have sharpened up the vocal character and created a few more "individuals": like the use of a countertenor, Randall Wong, for the role of Henry Wong. Wallace is a bit of a stylistic magpie, and he revels in quotation. From the fateful Tosca, Scarpia's theme is a recurrent motif de mort, and there'sa burst of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (the "Dance of the Earth") as liberation erupts on to Castro Street. "Come on out!" the cry goes up, and they do, Funk meeting mardi gras in the mother of gay parades. "Gays in the Millinery", reads one banner - a camp slant on a fiercely topical issue.

Harvey Milk gets a terrific production from Christopher Alden. Designer Paul Steinberg's diagonal row of "closet doors" serves both the dramatic and farcical elements of the show. A cordon of policemen are seen practising baton techniques on their own shadows. But the doors burst open, transforming shadows to drag queens. Chilling. Then there are the "men without wives" at the opera, worshippers at the shrine of Divadom: a huge pop-art likeness of Callas gliding into view like some kitsch icon. Alden's company is a strong, energetic one, lacking only that last degree of Broadway physicality which ideally some of the racier, showbizzy ensembles demand.

It's headed next for New York and, later, home to San Francisco, by which time it may have undergone some judicious pruning. The final scene is way too long, its sense of climax undermined. The chorus sings a protracted Kaddish, and a moving representation of the historic candle-lit procession for the martyred Milk traces out a luminous triangle around the stage, as the orchestra embarks upon one of those eternal lyric flowerings that could only have been sown in American soil. Its effect is certainly cathartic, but the authors just won't let go.

Yet all is said and done in the final moment of the piece when Harvey Milk as a young boy breaks the handcuffs that once shackled him. His action speaks for all future generations. And with American politics swerving suddenly to the right, the timing is impeccable.