A reaction to Intelligence

I saw Gene Scheer and Jack Heggie’s new opera Intelligence at the Houston Grand Opera. I’ve been mulling over my own intelligence in writing about my reaction to it, but I want opera to change, and so I am writing this. If you don’t know about the opera, its plot, etc., you can find a fine summary here on the HGO website.

The biggest problem for me with Intelligence is that the plot is about a White woman and a Black woman and the opera is written and composed by two White men. They did bring in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a celebrated Black choreographer and her Urban Bush Women dance troupe for it, but more on that later. The show mostly belongs to Scheer and Heggie, and I’m so tired of White men telling women’s (and especially women of color’s) stories.

The libretto is weak. The first act is about setting up characters and then getting Mary Jane into the Confederate White House so she can transmit information back to Elizabeth. Mary Jane meets Lucinda; Lucinda seems to know everything about Mary Jane but Mary Jane doesn’t know who Lucinda is. Mary Jane asks questions that Lucinda doesn’t answer, and then forgets what she was asking about. When we realize that no one else sees Lucinda, we know of course that she’s a ghost or a memory or both, and tied to Mary Jane. (Stroking one’s chin-beard: hmmm, who could she be?) Mary Jane is married to Wilson, but is attracted somewhat to Henry, and is sexually assaulted by Travis. Wilson’s role is utterly pointless; he could be eliminated entirely and then Mary Jane could have had more interesting scenes with Henry. Elizabeth manipulates Mary Jane as well as Travis and a pointless role of a cousin. We see and hear Mary Jane sending info to Elizabeth, but then Mary Jane is caught in Jefferson Davis’s office and starts a fire to escape. Seriously, if the opera had ended with the fire and a triumphant Mary Jane & Henry running for the North with Elizabeth’s help, it would have been perfect. Curtain down.

But there was Act 2. It begins with a dance similar to maskerade dances from several African cultures, but if you didn’t know that, you would have had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Oh, it was supposed to mean that Mary Jane is thinking of her ancestors. Like Lucinda, who she thought she saw in the fire, but no one else did. Mary Jane realizes that Lucinda is the spirit of her mother. Then Wilson kills Travis and Elizabeth covers it up with the useless cousin. Finally we get to a reveal that—gasp!—Mary Jane and Elizabeth are half-sisters, and that their dad sold off Lucinda when the girls were both about 2 or 3. If Scheer thought this would be a shock, he was dead wrong. We all KNOW THIS STORY ALREADY. Sorry. Mary Jane leaves Elizabeth and heads north.

Before I get to the music, there’s the dancing. The dancers were phenomenal. Absolutely stunning. But almost none of the dance had any bearing on what was going on in the rest of the opera. Sometimes the dance was concealed somewhat behind scrims and hard to see; other times it was just ….odd.  At one point, Mary Jane has an aria and a dancer behind a scrim does a dance that looks like The Robot. Another time, dancers move in and around the singers but it’s not clear what their role is, or meaning is. I don’t know whether the troupe will be for hire for other opera companies that put on this opera, but companies will need a big group of good dancers to put it on. And while you could do it without dance, the second act is so dance-dependent that it’s probably only about 25 minutes long without the dance parts.

Now the music. As you’d expect, it’s tonal and inoffensive. It’s also boring. And some of the repeating motifs are problems: one of them is a near-direct quotation from the main theme of the “Russian Sailors’ Dance” from Gliere’s The Red Poppy. Yeah, no one knows the opera, but pops concerts program the Dance a lot. Another theme has unfortunate similarities to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler On the Roof. Some of the dances used shakers and drums to apparently, er, sound African, but the dance music, by a White composer, is problematic. The shakers-and-drums approach homogenizes all of Africa into a single, racist trope that composers cannot seem to stop using. Elizabeth and Lucinda and Mary Jane all get decent arias and duets, but nothing that made my heart soar. Or made me cry. Or did much to me. Maybe I have a grinch heart. There were so many missed opportunities in the music and libretto both—if we’d know about the half-sister relationship from the beginning, the team could really have explored more about race and the South; if the music had been more compelling and taken chances, rather than (seemingly) catering to audiences who aren’t adventurous; if a team of women had written it, if a Black composer-librettist team had done it, if if if….

The set looks like a 1970s office block. Granted, it was designed so that the various pieces-parts of it like scrims and such could be used to project onto and to use for silhouettes. But it was ugly, and I am sure that the Confederate White House did not have chandeliers from Ikea. The set repeatedly took me out of the opera. The projections were well-thought out but they were also constant and so eventually began to fade into the background.

Finally, I had been looking forward to hearing Jamie Barton (Elizabeth) sing, but she was just not in good voice or something. She had warbles and weirdnesses all over the first act. She was not as good as she was in La Favorite at HGO a few years ago. J’Nai Bridges (Lucinda, ghost mother of Mary Jane) was good if not spectacular. Janai Brugger (Mary Jane) was good. Michael Mayes (Travis, Confederate Home Guard) was fine. Nicholas Newton (Henry, Jefferson Davis’s butler) was absolutely fan-fucking-tastic.  He has a great voice, and was a good actor. Unfortunately, Joshua Blue (Wilson, Mary Jane’s husband) was so nasal and flat that it was painful to hear him sing.

All of the things I wish for this opera are too far in the past to fix. I wish Scheer and Heggie hadn’t taken on this story, had said, “this isn’t our story to tell.” I wish someone had told them to read the room on race in America, and on the opera stage. I wish …well, a lot of things. Now I just kind of wish that Intelligence will fade away into obscurity.

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