If Elizabeth Rousset (known as Boule de Suif) had read her horoscope that morning, she wouldn't have left the house. But she does leave, meeting up with nine other people trying to get from one French town to another during the Franco-Prussian war. They all board a stagecoach (it's 1870) and start their journey across a snowy landscape. That's when the trouble starts. First, it's really snowy and they get stuck in a drift. Second, it didn't occur to them to bring food. They get hungry.
So begins the new operaThe Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suifby composer Stephen Hartke and writer Philip Littell, who based their American opera on a short story by Guy de Maupassant. The same story, "Boule de Suif" ("The Good Whore"), may have also inspired the film Stagecoach.
The newly commissioned operatic adaptation received funding from the Hanson Institute for American Music of the EastmanSchool. And when it premieres at Glimmerglass on July 22, composer Stephen Hartke (pronounced "heart key") will likely ride a wave of critical adulation that's followed him from New York to Los Angeles. Born in New Jersey in 1952, he's been hailed as one of America's "Young Lions" by writer Paul Griffiths. His music fuses elements of world, liturgical, and pop music into carefully crafted material that's been described as playful, organic, and provocative.
"It's accessible music," says Glimmerglass director Michael McLeod. "And people should experience it as part of the totality of the new opera."
Boule de Suif realizes she's the only one who knows how to pack for a trip: she has food in a basket under her skirt. But the other stagecoach passengers haven't been all that nice to her, since she's a prostitute. Even so, she sets aside hurt feelings and divvies up the goods with her now-grateful companions.
When their coach stops at an inn at the next French village, and they run into a new problem: lusty men. An occupying Prussian officer takes one look at Boule de Suif and wants her in his bed. Unless she agrees to sleep with him, he announces, he won't let the others go. You would think that because of the food and all, the other passengers would rush to defend her honor. But that's not how it happens.
A few weeks ago, Newsweek magazine named Glimmerglass in Cooperstown one of the country's top destinations for summertime opera. How an unsophisticated farming community grew such a rich artistic resource is a long story. You may remember the days when Artpark in Lewiston (west of Rochester) drew opera fans with big productions such as The Merry Widow and Wagner's Ring Cycle. In the mid-1980s funding started to dry up for Artpark. Around the same time, Glimmerglass was rising in the east.
The new company presented its first season in the summer of 1975, when musicians staged four performances of La Bohème in the auditorium of the CooperstownHigh School. After more than a decade of success with old chestnuts by Puccini, Rossini, and Mozart, Glimmerglass' artistic director Paul Kellogg steered the company in a new direction. In the mid-1990s, he and his colleagues started presenting riskier productions such as Paul Bunyan by Benjamin Britten. When Kellogg retires after this season, he'll leave behind a mature, critically acclaimed company that draws opera lovers from all over the Northeast. Glimmerglass now offers 45 performances of four operas, all in new productions, each season, in an intimate, semi-outdoor theater.
This season's productions includes two crowd-pleasers, Rossini's Barber of Seville and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, as well as Jenufa by 20th-century composer Leos Janacek, and The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suifby Hartke and Littell.
In the new opera, Boule de Suif doesn't want to sleep with the Prussian officer, and initially, her traveling companions back her up. But what happens next may or may not confirm your opinion of human nature. "Audience members won't know if they're going to see a sex act or a murder onstage," says Michael McLeod. "It's a thriller."
The world premiere of The Greater Good, or the Passion of Boule de Suifby Hartke and Littell, Saturday, July 22, with soprano Caroline Worra as Boule de Suif. Sung in English with projected titles.Alice Busch Opera Theater, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown. Glimmerglass Opera summer season runs through August 29, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Matinees at 1:30 pm. Evening performances at 8 pm. Tickets $36-$117. (607) 547-5704. glimmerglass.org.
Brenda Tremblay hosts weekly concerts by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Tuesdays at 8p.m. on Classical 91.5, WXXI-FM.