'Dinner at Eight' to highlight relevant issues of class struggle in Depression-era opera

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 4:54pm

Opera is usually about reinterpretation. It's usually about donning elaborate costumes and singing in foreign languages. It’s usually about the reinterpretation of classics, trying to find new meaning in old works. Rarely does an opera company get the chance to work with modern themes in modern contexts, particularly in their native tongue. SMTD Opera Theatre’s production of “Dinner at Eight,” however, is this rare opera and more. Opening Nov. 9 at the Power Center, it is a modern opera by a living composer about 20th-century American society.

Revolving around the disconnect between the upper-class and the rest of American society, the opera is strikingly relevant today. Based on the famous 1930s black comedy by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber, it follows upper-class Manhattanites as they prepare for an elaborate dinner party for visiting English noblemen. The disconnect between these socialites and the average American could not be more stark or more profound. It is the story of the Great Depression and the story of today, full of wealthy elitists ignoring the problems facing the rest of the country.

As Associate Professor of Music and stage director Robert Swedberg described it, the play centers around “the juxtaposition of what’s going on with the one-percenters, the high society, the wealthy, against this undercurrent of what’s happening with the rest of society.”

While the characters worry about their dinner party and their social lives, the average American worries about their economic security. The parallels to today could not be clearer: It’s about the disconnect between the haves and have-nots, the petty problems of the aristocracy in the midst of massive economic downturns.

The work also focuses on social anxiety among these socialites as they try to suppress their inner insecurities. Full of romance and deceit, the opera mixes black comedy with more serious topics such as suicide and financial ruin. It’s a chilling look at the falsities of American life, particularly when compared to our current social-media-crazed world. Though humorous on the surface, the frightening implications of the work are hard to miss.

“You’re seeing people and their human problems, and them really hitting home for a lot of people,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Rehanna Thelwell.

The opera was composed by the University’s own William Bolcom, professor emeritus of Composition. Bolcom served as a member of the Composition Department at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance for 35 years. Though his chamber and orchestral works are performed regularly by University ensembles, this is the first of his operas to be presented by the Opera Theatre. The small cast and small pit orchestra make this work possible for the Opera Theatre.

“It’s a big deal for us but it’s one of his smaller works,” Swedberg said. “William Bolcom was on faculty for so many years. He’s such a great composer, one of the most renowned American composers.”

Bolcom has been active in the rehearsal process of the work, attending rehearsals and offering feedback as the work progresses. With one previous production at the Minnesota Opera earlier this year, the work is fresh and open to interpretation.

“You don’t get to work with composers very often — especially not on opera,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Sam Kidd. “[At one point] he started reminiscing about New York. He spent so much time there and it seemed like he had such a feel for the city and I think that comes across in the atmosphere that he is able to create.”

Swedberg echoed the sentiment.

“I think that it’s a cool thing,” he said. “The influence of how someone else might have performed a role is kind of hard to steer away from once someone has seen that kind of or picked up on that kind of background. In this case it’s really nice to have them in our discussions about how to develop the characters to have a fresh approach.”

The excitement surrounding Bolcom permeated throughout SMTD.

“You rarely get a chance to work with living composers. Even when you have people who are experts about certain composers and things it still isn’t the same because they aren’t that person,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Yazid Gray. “It's exciting because you can use your own artistic liberty and really dig.”

Dinner at Eight” is a new opera about contemporary American life. It’s a fresh look at the flaws of 20th and 21st-century American society, an uncanny demonstration of the parallels between Depression-era and contemporary American society.

“We don’t have to be naming names, and maybe it’s even better if we don’t,” Swedberg said. “Just looking at situations and reflecting on that, I think that that’s what’s really important about going to the theater, going to opera, finding ways into it without it knocking you in the head.”