“A part of an opera company’s mission is, of course, to do the classics, so we will always do wonderful productions of La Bohème and Carmen and Aida,” says Nashville Opera artistic director, John Hoomes. “But I think it’s also part of an opera company’s mission to expose your audience to a lot of different aspects of opera, because as much as I love Carmen, and we’re doing it in a couple of months, there are a lot of other pieces in the Rep that need to be seen that are very important pieces.”
That philosophy has guided Hoomes since he took the helm of Nashville Opera in the mid-90s. Within a few years, it took its first risk, a production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera and adaptation of the Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw.
“It was unlike anything people here had ever seen,” Hoomes recalls, “and to be honest, some people loved it, some people were scratching their heads, but it gave us a bit of street cred, that we were willing to step outside of the box a little bit.”
Hoomes and the Nashville Opera have continued to build that street cred, and this weekend at TPAC’s Polk Theater, they’ll take another leap forward by presenting the World Premiere of composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote’s three-act opera, Three Way. The opera, made up of three smaller pieces—”The Companion,” “Safe Word” and “Masquerade”—focuses on contemporary characters in what are very much modern situations. As Hoomes stresses, these are contemporary pieces that are not about kings and queens and something that happened two hundred years ago. This is about us today, and in the future, and the subject matter is common human experience.”
“They may not be experiences most people want to talk about,” he adds, “but it sure exists and sure happens. These are pieces that hold a mirror up to us today.”
While people may not want to talk about them, the experiences the opera dramatizes fit easily into today’s pop culture landscape. They also, in their own way, have strong female characters at their core. The first piece, “The Companion,” while futuristic, is wholly humanistic, like the critically-acclaimed films, Her and Ex Machina. In it, Maya (soprano Danielle Pastin) is a woman in her 30s who is successful and in control of her life. She has not had success in love and relationships, however, so she tries a companion android. He’s programmed to work in the house, where he cleans; in the kitchen, where he cooks; and in the bedroom, where he satisfies her sexual needs.
“It not only deals with a character who is trying to find her way,” says Hoomes, “it deals with us today, who for some reason are more comfortable looking at our phones than talking to another person. That’s not real. You feel a connection maybe but it’s not a real-lif connection. At the end people get very teary, it’s very touching and very sweet.”
In “Safe Word,” the opera that Hoomes originally saw that got him interested in working with Cote and Paterson, focuses on a different kind of control. It deals with a woman, played by mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet in her Nashville Opera debut, who is a dominatrix. But it quickly becomes much less about sex and more about power and control and who is in control. Again, it’s hard to imagine such an opera not raising eyebrows a decade ago, whereas today, pop culture and mainstream entertainment—see the Fifty Shades of Grey book and film franchise or the Showtime series Billions—has made it considerably more acceptable subject matter.
In the third and final piece of the triptych, four couples—mostly driven by the women—meet for a night of sexual exploration at a country mansion, in what Hoomes likes to call, “kind of like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut re-imagined as an awkward Woody Allen comedy.”
“It’s possible in Nashville and around the country (that Three Way might have had a hard time getting produced),” says librettist Cote, who cites David Ives’s two-person play, Venus in Fur, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, for breaking some of the taboo associated with S&M. “Portrayals of S&M have come out of the shadows as far as being stigmatized or strictly for deviants.”
But the subject matter, Cote stresses, is secondary to the human elements and the drama. “When Rob and I got around to thinking about three short operas, and not having to deal with copyright issues of adapting a whole novel, we decided on sex, sexual fetishes and extreme edges of sexuality. That seemed pretty dramatic to us. Rob and I didn’t set out to do anything overtly feminist with Three Way, but I think that we definitely wanted to avoid cliches of erotica or pornography, or go for the male domination fantasy. The pieces are not particularly explicit. There is no nudity. The language and action on stage, while not for kids, is fairly clean. It’s not presented for shock value.”
Perception is something Hoomes is working against as well.
“It’s the right time for the pieces,” he says, “and our society has opened up a bit more to talk about these pieces, but the way they are presented, and the way David has written them and the way the music works, they are actually very human pieces about common experience. They are very intense and poignant and touching at times with just people trying to find their way. When people hear the name of the show is Three Way, they tend to think I’m doing Hustler the Magazine: The Opera. It’s nothing like that at all. So I trying to get away from what people see as some salacious evening in the theater and stress that it’s really very human, and beautiful and funny.”
After its Nashville World Premiere, January 27-29 at TPAC, Three Way will make its way to New York for performances at BAM Fisher with the American Modern Ensemble, June 15-18.
“(There are) a lot of eyes are on us,” says Hoomes. “A lot of people are looking to see what is going to happen, and everyone is looking for the next great piece or the next Carmen. One thing about showing world premieres and new pieces is that we work to move the art form forward and try and create things that are going to last and join the canon and be produced and enjoyed by audiences again and again.”
The Nashville Opera presents the World Premiere of Three Way, with libretto by David Cote and music by Robert Paterson, Friday-Sunday, January 27-29 at TPAC’s Polk Theater. Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are available now.