Comic Artists’ Night at the Opera: Doubton January 31, 2013 at 4:28 am
I’ve been looking forward to this one, since frankly, the new operas have been among my favorites. Doubt, as in the play and movie of the same name, written by the same person, did not disappoint.
For those who haven’t been keeping up with such things, Doubt was first an award winning play (Pulitzer), then it was a star studded (notably, Meryl Streep), award winning movie (SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, BFCA Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress, National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble).
So, uh. It’s got good bones.
I haven’t seen the movie or the play. I intend to fix that ASAP.
Here’s the basic rundown of the plot. I’ll talk about the music in a moment.
The story is set in 1964. The civil rights movement is in full swing, Kennedy’s assassination is still making waves, the US is being torn apart by the Vietnam War, and Vatican II was starting to make itself known and shaking up the Catholic Church and upsetting people.
Especially people like our Leading Lady, Sister Aloysius, principal of a Catholic boarding school. She’s a staunch conservative; she’s older and has been in the biz of being a teacher/principal in catholic school since her husband died many years ago. The students are terrified into respect at her presence, and she rules her school with the kind of iron fist that gives nuns the formidable reputation in fiction and real life they still enjoy.
Its unfortunate for her, then, that the new Priest of the church connected to the school is one of the liberal upstarts that have embraced Vatican II. He’s personable, he drinks with the bishop, he does his Mass in English, he isn’t opposed to secular Christmas songs, and he feels like he should be one of the families to all his parishioners. Father Flynn, he of the pretty baritone, and symbol of all that is a-changing.
He’s also…a bit touchy-feely with the boys of the school. Particularly, the first black boy to be allowed into the school, Donald Miller.
And Sister Aloysius, looking for a reason, any reason, to see the worst in Father Flynn/get rid of the man, hears about a bit of impropriety (remember, she’s so conservative she thinks fire might go out of style any day now), and says, “So. It’s finally happened here.”
She’s been around enough to have seen Priests take advantage of students before. She’s also been around long enough to know just how much the church hierarchy cares about such things. If she follows her chain of command, she’ll just be telling Father Flynn’s current drinking buddy and pal the Monsignor. And he’ll jus dismiss her concerns. She knows this.
She ropes a younger nun, Sister James, one without her worldly experience, one without her suspicious nature, into being a third party to the drama she’s about to unfold. Sister Aloysius tells Sister James, “Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.”
And boy does she think she’s found evil.
Father Flynn, for his part, is either a world-class liar or he’s innocent. Which is, of course the whole point. He’s certainly doing some things that could, if you were inclined to think in that direction, be incredibly damning. But he’s got reasonable explanations for each of them. He spends a lot of time with Donald Miller because he is worried that the boy will be bullied by the other students. He had a closed door meeting with Donald, who seemed to be drunk afterward—but the janitor was the one to bring him to the Priest after catching Donald drinking the altar wine. Father Flynn wanted to keep the incident quiet because if anybody knew about it, Donald would get in trouble—and his father is abusive. He tried to hide a shirt of Donald’s—again, to keep the stealing altar wine thing a secret.
I’m just saying, Sister Aloysius has a point. Father Flynn is kind of not doing a good job of appearing like a dude on the up and up.
She confronts him. He reacts…well, if you were inclined to think in a different direction, he reacts like an innocent priestly dude told he’s been molesting little boys by a nun that hates everything he does. Which is to say, not well.
Sister James believes him. Sister Aloysius sees his little temper tantrum as defensiveness, and doubles down on her certainty that he is guilty. And decides that if Father Flynn won’t resign or admit to guilt to the higher ups, and they won’t do anything about him, she’ll have to run him out of the priesthood, and until then, Donald should probably leave the school.
She calls Donald’s mother.
Its important to note, here, that Sister Aloysius sees the world in complete black and white with no shades of grey.
Donald’s mother, however, knows that all that is waiting at home for her son is a messy death at the hands of his father. See, she and her husband suspect that Donald is gay. And her response is maybe not what the good sister expects—that it’s only till June, that even if it is true, at least Father Flynn is an otherwise good man and wouldn’t hurt him. That it is only ‘till June. And no matter what Father Flynn is doing, even if its hurting her son, he’s not going to kill him. So, no. She won’t pull her son out of the school. If the nun must get rid of somebody, it has to be the priest, and her son must be left out of it.
Sister Aloysius’s certainty is not swerved, but she will at least throw her energies behind getting rid of Father Flynn. And to that end, she confronts him again, telling him to resign, telling him that she’s finally got real proof, that she called his last posting, and talked to the nuns there and got some real, but vague dirt on him. She implies that they said he molested little boys there too, but—and this is important, she never explicitly says that.
But he does resign. He calls up the chain of command and requests a transfer. He leaves.
Sister Aloysius is triumphant, if feeling a bit guilty—she sorta lied about calling the last place he had been. She made it up, bore false witness—y’know, mortal sin and all that. But it was for the greater good, right? Well…
Father Flynn was transferred. To the position of principal of an all boys boarding school.
So. Uh. Yay?
Well, if he’s innocent, no harm no foul. But he is hiding something; he tells us so in the first song. And he did capitulate to Sister Aloysius’s blackmail. So. Doubt.
Yeah, you saw what I did there.
The did he/didn’t he debate is kinda old hat by now—and I suspect changes for everyone on the staging, what the actors and director think about it, and I suspect, changes between performances and the little nuances that change between shows. A touch of a shoulder there, the lack of physical contact here, significant looks and a sudden decision to be louder or softer for this stanza or that one.
In the performance I saw, most folks thought he did it. Some thought he did something else, and was driven out by the threat to his reputation, and not an actual known stain.
It’s very good. Enough about the plot though—how is it as an opera?
It’s fabulous. Christine Brewer’s Sister Aloysius is powerful, believable, and her voice soars and fills the space. She’s an experienced operatic soprano, and it shows. She’s damn near perfect for the part, and it was a joy to hear her. Father Flynn’s baritone was smooth and clean and rode the line between too smooth to be real and innocent being hounded because of his new-fangled approach to religion. And Denyce Graves, as Mrs. Miller, knocked her part out of the park.
There were also kids—many of whom I think I recognized from The Giver, and they were awesome, middle school kids being kids and being awful to each other, and trying to kiss each other and playing around with being preteens. Well cast, and I particularly enjoyed the “booger, booger, booger” chorus, after one of them was chided for picking his nose. Opera is serious business folks.
All in all, if you can, GO SEE THIS. It’s wonderful, it’s moving, and the talent on display is top notch. More drawings by Lee to follow: