The Opera is a Scandal

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Above: the image created to represent New York City Opera's production of Powder Her Face.  Says George Steel, “[director] Jay Scheib is the perfect person to tell this story in the post-Monica Lewinsky, post-DSK era."

“THE LIBRETTO READS like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added.”  So wrote Alex Ross in the New Yorker, of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, in 1998, which had premiered three years before in London and by then clearly become a favorite with critics and audiences alike.  The opera has remained a favorite.  Based on the story of the "Dirty Duchess", Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in the early ‘60s, Power Her Face received its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music fifteen years ago.  It returns there this month in a production from New York City Opera, directed by Jay Scheib.  And making her U.S. debut as the Dutchess is British mezzo-soprano Allison Cook (“phenomenal”—Il Giorno, Milan).

Telling the story of a scandal, Powder Her Face is a bit of a scandal itself.  According to BAM, “the opera is explicit in its language and detail [and] became notorious for its musical depiction of fellatio: British radio station Classic FM considered it unsuitable for transmission.”  For insights about the opera and this new production, we spoke briefly with New York City Opera General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel.

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New York City Opera General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel

CLASSICAL TV:  Since its premiere in 1995, this opera has become practically a contemporary classic.  Why were you so eager for New York City Opera to do it? 

GEORGE STEEL: I love the opera--a nd it has never received a full staging in New York. It was an exciting-- and even obvious-- choice for us.

CTV: What made BAM the right partner for you and New York City Opera to work with, on this presentation?

GS: The opera house at BAM is one of the best in the country; and BAM is a terrific artistic fit for us and for this opera, especially.

CTV: What does this new production by director Jay Scheib bring out in the work?  What kind of vision or direction did you and he talk about, when planning it?

 GS: Jay is an amazing theater-maker. He is filling the stage with energy and movement, both seductive and violent. He has an uncanny ability to unleash the full energies and talents of this extraordinary cast--the singers love working with him.

CTV: Can you tell us a little something about your admiration for Thomas Adès?  What is it about his work that seems to speak to so many people, so compellingly?  What hallmarks of this particular opera make it so popular and stageworthy?

GS: I love this piece--it is a virtuoso showpiece for his compositional powers: a loving send-up of Cole Porter.  Perverse and delicious permutations on a tango by Carlos Gardel, a rhapsodic trio that tips a hat to Rosenkavalier, and (ahem) sexual mimesis.  The score is full of dazzling touches.

CTV:  The opera is about a scandal—and apparently was something of a scandal itself, in its sexual explicitness.   I gather the British radio station Classic FM found it “unsuitable for transmission.”  Do you expect any scandal this time around?

GS: Jay Scheib is the perfect person to tell this story in the post-Monica Lewinsky, post-DSK era. His production will be frank and maybe even shocking, but always humane, sympathetic, and tremendous fun!

For more information on the New York City Opera production of Powder Her Face, go here.