In 2011, American opera singer Frederica von Stade gave what was billed as her farewell performance, in the Houston Grand Opera production of Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. At the time, von Stade was considered one of the world’s finest mezzo-sopranos, so it’s no surprise that she couldn’t stay away from the stage for long. Only three years after her retirement, the 68-year-old returns to the Wortham Center this month as 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, the protagonist of the chamber opera A Coffin in Egypt.
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
The opera—the HGO’s 52nd world premiere—is based on a one-woman play of the same title by the legendary Texas writer Horton Foote, who’s perhaps best remembered for penning the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird. In Foote’s play, which he wrote in 1980 but wasn’t produced until 1998, Bledsoe—a wealthy widow living in the small town of Egypt, Texas (a real town not far from where Foote grew up in Wharton)—reflects back on her tumultuous life, and particularly her violent, philandering husband. The piece, although short, paints a sharp, knowing portrait of rural Texas.
The play premiered in Sag Harbor, New York in 1998 under the direction of Leonard Foglia, who remembers working closely with Foote. He was, Foglia says, “a spectacularly kind and gentle man,” and, unusually for a playwright, he attended every performance. (Foote died in 2009). Still, there were challenges involved in adapting a one-woman play into a one-woman opera, namely bringing to life Bledsoe’s vivid but fragmented memories of her life. Among Foglia’s changes was to have actors portray figures from Bledsoe’s past.
Once Foglia had created the libretto, composer Ricky Ian Gordon—known mainly as a writer of songs and musicals—began writing the music. Because gospel is referenced in the play, Gordon chose to write music in the same genre, indeed to have four gospel singers stand on stage, Greek chorus–like, with the rest of the cast. “It’s a very hybrid piece, formally,” Gordon says. “It’s opera, it’s musical theater, there’s gospel, there’s dialogue without music.”
As stated, A Coffin in Egypt is a chamber opera, written to be performed with a small ensemble—in this case 13 musicians, including the gospel singers. Befitting the piece’s modest scale, it will be performed in the Wortham’s more intimate Cullen Theater. After playing Houston, the opera will be performed by LA’s Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Opera Philadelphia, both of which are co-producers of the work with HGO. Amazingly, von Stade will sing the lead in all three cities. HGO Managing Director Perryn Leech calls it Stade’s “comeback tour.”
“She’s sung all the great roles in all the great houses in the world,” Leech says. “She has an emotional integrity such that, in whatever role she does, she connects with the audience. And she has a voice to die for.”