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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Susannah: "Southern Gothic"

Since it was in the news, it must be true, right?!? I'm glad our friend Mike Allen referred to Susannah that way in today's Roanoke Times. And I can't believe we open one week from tonight! I hope as many of our friends make it to this, our premiere production of a very special opera, April 28 & 30.

Projection mock-up of "Revival" scene, II.2, by Dong Soo Choi, projection designer and photographer

Below is the latest in an ongoing series of production "notebooks" for Susannah.

Tragedy, Eros and the Bittersweet, and Susannah as the archetypal “mirror”… (Susannah projections)

Sweet-bitter as a more accurate translation of the Greek original, according to Anne Carson (Eros the Bittersweet). Here’s her version of Sappho (fragment 130):

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me

sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

Sweet-bitter may “sound wrong” to Carson, but maybe it’s a good way of describing our cultural preference for “a spoonful of sugar,” which allegedly “helps the medicine go down”… Perhaps it helps explain why opera remains one of our preferred cultural media for the tragic (see above for another gloss on opera’s longstanding link with ancient, “classical” tragedy…) Because of opera’s lyrical appeal, so-called “tragedies” are sweet-bitter as they go down; their beauty makes an other wise bitter medicine palatable…(while unfairly criticized as “saccharine”, opera hews closer to our ideas of true “classical” theatre, and especially tragic theatre; it’s tonic and aperitif; balm and medicine, entrée, main & dessert in one; both the tragic and comic masks are used…)

Here’s a note from our long-time friend, patron, and company member, John Stroebel, following a special event April 19 to promote the upcoming production:

Stephanie did a great job on “Ain’t It a Pretty Night." In listening to that “song”, I have admired not only the beauty of the music but the beauty of the poetry. And in reflecting on that after the performance last night, it struck me how the central image in that aria (the starry heaven looking “like a great big mirror with fireflies reflected over a pond”) is really a cogent metaphor for the central theme of the opera—that the heavens (our interpretation of God) is often just a reflection (projection) of our own internal world (anthropomorphic). So, the vengeful, damning God of Olin Blitch is a reflection of his own internal state; when the Elders spot an innocent girl bathing in a creek, they see an evil temptress, etc. It’s the view expressed by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us."

John says succinctly what I ramble on about elliptically…At its essence, Susannah is a microcosm for art itself, holding up a mirror to its audience… The “sweet-bitter” humanity of Susannah in its enacting of a timeless ritual – the individual’s journey – Susannah’s “great big mirror” is a central image/metaphor/allegory for this particular story: an example of art as a mirror for us… we come to the theatre to see our world reflected and portrayed, to hear our stories told… we come to see and hear our nobler and so-called “better” selves; our funnier, entertaining selves; our romantic, adventurous, and risk-taking selves, and also our selves in all our humanity – failings and fears, weaknesses and mistakes…

…Curious to know if the Greeks included music (and a coro) with their violent tragedies in order to make the “sweet-bitter” story more digestible… After all, opera fans are more passionate about their tragedies – their star-crossed lovers, epic war-torn settings, doomed affairs, curses and tragic hero/ines… really, grand opera does continue and extend a long line of melodramatic entertainments which includes: Homer, Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller; the late August Wilson…(now Tony Kushner and Suzan Lori-Parks are among the torchbearers of this “operatic” tradition of theatre… It’s bold, passionate – unashamed of the sweeping gesture or the formal bow to the ancients, the “old gods”) – proud of its literary and poetic credentials, the rhapsodic arias and emphatically repetitive choruses are a central part of this drama’s appeal…

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