By Arnold Wayne Jones

What FW Opera’s production lacks in stagecraft it makes up in drama

ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH: A herald (Ava Pine) visits an HIV-positive man (David Adam Moore) and declares him a prophet in the Fort Worth Opera’s "Angels in America."

There is a scene near the end of Act 1 in the Fort Worth Opera’s production of "Angels in America" that, intentionally or not, draws a line in the sand for traditional opera audiences. Two gay men, Louis (Scott Scully) and Joe (Craig Verm), flirt and eventually hook up — first cruising each other in Central Park, surrounded by leather daddies and gym rats fondling each other in the shadows, then in bed at Louis’ apartment.

Same-sex kissing and male semi-nudity might be common at Uptown Players, or even places like WaterTower Theatre, but opera? In Cowtown? The words "unheard of" leap to mind.

Which is perhaps why this pared-down adaptation of Tony Kushner’s monumental two-part play about AIDS and politics during the Reagan Years (cut from seven hours to two-and-a-half) resonates beyond its music — beyond, even, its stagecraft, which on opening night was occasionally sloppy. There were predictably some defections at intermission, but the vast majority of patrons who stayed until the end were sharing an experience as much as they were watching an opera. The production felt seismic.

Theater, of course, shouldn’t be medicinal, no matter how well-intentioned. If "Angels" were little more than a noble failure with an historic footnote, it might not be worth a ticket. But this is much more accomplished than that.

There are a few hurdles to jump through. Aside from the subject matter, there’s the music itself. Peter Eotvos, the composer, writes modern music — lots of dissonant chords and no hummable melody lines, which can be taxing for ears hoping to hear a "Nessun Dorma" or "Habanera."

The abstract, allegorical nature of both the play and this production can also make for sensory overload (much of the action occurs on moving scaffoldings, and video wallpaper projecting images of everything from the Iran-Contra hearings to the image of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge undulating before its collapse). And aside from the gay content, the language of the piece can be shocking as well as funny ("The stiffening of your penis is of no consequence," says an angel).

But making the investment in "Angels" pays off, especially because the drama feels so real, so meaningful. Although AIDS is not the front-and-center scourge is was when Kushner’s play came out, the opera version still feels relevant. And while the trimming takes out huge chunks of the story, it does not do so violently — the bones are there, and the arrival of the angel (Ave Pine) through the roof of Prior Walter’s (David Adam Moore) bedroom is thrilling to see.

Despite some stumbles, director David Gately concentrates his energies where he needs to: The twinkling auras whenever angels appear, the intriguing video elements, the passionate performances.

Eotvos’ music often feels more like a dramatic underscore than something necessary to illuminate sung words; much of the libretto is spoken. But when Moore and Pine pair up in Act 2, they make a dazzling one-two punch of gorgeous singers, and Kelly Anderson as Roy Cohn and Janice Hall as Hannah standout vocally as well.

The curtain call on opening night began with somewhat mild applause, but by the end most of the audience was on its feet cheering. "Angels" isn’t always easy to watch, but it sneaks up on you, and the effect can approach the overwhelming.

Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth. May 28 and June 4 at 8 p.m., May 24, 31 and June 2 at 2 p.m. $17–$52.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 23, 2008.
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