The Yellow Wallpaper Seen in New York
The Manhattan School of Music continued its fine tradition of offering unusual operatic fare by presenting the first New York production of Ronald Perera's The Yellow Wallpaper. Described as a chamber opera in two acts, the dramatic work, with a libretto by Constance Congdon, is based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 100-year-old novella. Mark Harrison, who collaborated in the original conception and production at Smith College in 1989, again directed. The conductor was David Gilbert, sets were designed by Loy Arcenas, costumes were by Catherine Zuber, and lighting by Robert Wierzel. Chorus master for the show was Amy Kaiser.
Two principal women's roles, that of the ill-fated Charlotte and her well-meaning sister-in&-law Jennie, were double-cast (Peggy Kriha, Laura Hemphill and Pamela Moor, Julianne Borg, respectively); other leading roles were played by Kyle Pfortmiller as Charlotte's husband John, a doctor; Rod Nelman as Ed, a workman; Beth Clayton as his wife, Mary; Charles Bressler as Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell; and Lee Ann Hutchison as The Woman in the Wall.
The genesis of the operatic version of The Yellow Wallpaper was recounted in MadAminA! in its Fall, 1990 edition by its creators, composer Perera, librettist Congdon, and director Harrison. The novella has in the meanwhile become quite the rage, even providing the BBC with the basis for a popular, if culturally misplanted television treatment. (The teleplay's venue was set in Rural England and therefore eliminated entirely the indigenously American atmosphere of Perkins original.) The book has come out in several editions and has been widely celebrated as an American literary landmark which, although recently just observing its centennial, has most recently been touted by women's study groups as a prescient precursor of the women's movement and feminist literature.
There are powerful autobiographical aspects to the book, whose author did indeed suffer from a type of depression which was treated by the real-life medical "authority," Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. Moreover, Gilman actually did keep a journal during her illness which became the basis for her book. Mercifully, the real Charlotte Perkins Gilman escaped the cruel destiny of Charlotte, her operatic counterpart, fleeing to California where she made a name for herself as a writer and lecturer. Upon publication, her book, The Yellow Wallpaper, made such an impact on Dr. Mitchell that he renounced his failed treatment for women's nervous disorders.
The Manhattan School's program contained the following synopsis of the opera:
Act I—Scene 1: The Realtor's daughters are playing around the old summer house which their father is about to lease to some city people. They are interrupted by Ed, the handyman, and his assistant, Len, who bring the baggage, as Ed complains about the foibles of "summer people." The unctuous Realtor arrives with John and Jennie. Ed briefs the Realtor on what he knows about the new tenants, including the fact that John's wife is suffering from "neurasthenia." Charlotte then enters, captivated by the Eden-like beauty of her new surroundings, but also sensitive to an uncanny aura about the place, a sense that it is filled with unuttered feelings and longings. Her over-solicitous husband and sister-in-law hurry her into the house.
Scene 2: While the renowned Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, in his own reality, delivers a windy monologue extolling the virtues of his "rest cure" for women's nervous disorders, the Realtor shows John and Charlotte the interior of the house. Charlotte is shocked to see for the first time the room where she will spend the summer. Finally left alone, she sings about the symptoms of her unhappiness, and begins to record secretly the first of her journal entries. First Jennie and then John bustle in to tend to her regimen. Jennie discovers Charlotte's journal, and reminds her emphatically that reading and writing are forbidden by the rest cure. Charlotte sinks onto her bed exhausted, but also hopeful about her new "Eden."
Scene 3: Jennie awakens Charlotte to the sunlight of a bright morning, and the two women watch from the window as John leaves for work. Charlotte, in a buoyant mood, imagines what it would be like to be a man ("If I Were John"), a vision Jennie can share—but only so far. After a duet in which the sisters-in-law sing about the responsibilities of women, as they see them, Jennie pulls away abruptly to return to her "duties," leaving Charlotte alone again to commit her observations, especially about the wallpaper-to her journal. Outside her window the little girls play jump rope, then stop to notice "that strange lady at the window." Charlotte experiences a brief attack of panic and calls to Jennie, who comes immediately to calm her.
Scene 4: On the porch, Ed sings about how he could fix up the old house if it were his. Jennie takes Charlotte for a "measured walk," part of the regimen. After Jennie goes inside to prepare lunch, Mary, the baby's nurse, joins Ed and Len in a song extolling the virtues of work and family. Ed and Len continue to work as Mary sings a lullaby to Charlotte's baby. Charlotte confides in Mary her feelings of inadequacy as a mother, and Mary assures her, in a down-to-earth way, that Charlotte can cope perfectly well.
Scene 5: Charlotte, sleeping with John in the big bed in her room, is awakened again and again by sounds that are strange to her. She tries to explain her anxieties to John. When he refuses to listen, she blurts out that she wants to go home. They sing a duet at cross purposes: he telling her how much better off she is here, she telling him that more and more she feels gripped by "something strange" here. John falls back asleep, and the voices of the women are heard singing. Charlotte, both curious and fearful, seeks for the source of the voices in the wall. Jennie enters in the morning to find her still at the wall, in her nightgown. Jennie puts Charlotte back to bed, then goes to the wall herself, but can discover nothing. When Jennie has left, the women sing again, and this time, Charlotte joins them.
Act II, Scene 1: Everyone gathers for an Independence Day, July 4 supper picnic by the lake. John's pontifications to the contrary, Charlotte seems now to be worse rather than better from the effects of her rest cure regimen. When the Realtor's daughters perform a school song for the company, she interrupts to ask them if they have though about where they will be when they grow up, and asks them to imagine being alone, like her, in a room with yellow wallpaper. Campfire songs drift faintly from across the lake; couples pair off and waltz. The Realtor starts to propose a toast, which Charlotte completes for him: to the twentieth century. Ever more isolated from the gathering, Charlotte sings a strange song about escape. John leads her off, the rest of the company say their goodnights, and a drunken clarinetist blows a jazz riff that heralds the coming of the twentieth century as fireworks usher out the last Independence Day of the nineteenth.
Scene 2: John and Charlotte, alone in the bedroom after the picnic, have an angry exchange. John storms out, leaving Charlotte alone once again to record her feelings in the journal. Her inner life is becoming inextricably interwoven with the women in the wallpaper, one of whom seems to sing directly to her a short aria of great emotional intensity.
Scene 3: Jennie and Mary are blueing (bleaching) laundry on the porch steps while Ed watches. The three sing of summer's passing. John's unexpected return from the city interrupts their reverie. He asks how "the patient" is doing and whether she is still writing in her book, then misinterprets the answers as vindication, at last, for the regimen he has imposed on her. An obsessed Charlotte, still in her room, traces the patterns in her wallpaper. Her fixation has now assumed a deeper psychological significance.
Scene 4: Charlotte traces with her fingers the wallpaper pattern that has become "her great map of the world." the paper and the chorus of women in the wallpaper press down upon her. Desperately she claws the paper down, freeing the women to enter the room for the first time. John and Jennie search frantically for the key to her locked room, which Charlotte threw out the window. They burst in to find her crawling around on the bedroom floor.
Scene 5: The tenants depart the summer house.
Mindful of its cult status, many critical inches were given over to the Gilman book, although the Perera score came in for much praise as well. The New York Times called it "a pretty, eclectic score, full of melodies and skillfully orchestrated," and New York magazine thought it a "sensitively conceived, carefully composed opera well worth seeing when staged with such flair and smart professionalism." The Daily News's Bill Zakariasen wrote: "Perera's music captures the odd drama of the story, and makes some beautiful sounds on the way. The 'chamber' orchestra is rather large, particularly in the percussion, but the scoring is of a rare transparency. Perera also writes vocal lines flattering to singers, and he knows how to compose ensembles of all sizes-a new musical voice worth hearing again."
New York Newsday's Philip Kennicott concurred: "Perera's score is far from trendy, but it is lyrical and tastefully subservient to the libretto….The score doesn't sound derivative. It is unambitious, but distinctive. The is precisely the sort of music that could be heard right now on Broadway, if only the sophistication of Weill, Blitzstein and Bernstein still held sway."
The Associated Press's Mary Campbell reported: "the music is pleasing, often with a melodic line for each line of conversation-which gives a modern effect-rather than a melody sustained for an aria. The set, staging and costumes, for the summer of 1899, were excellent…. Reading the novella, one wondered whether [Gilman's] thoughts could be conveyed in an opera. They have been, superbly."