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Angels in America (2002-2004) texts


Opera in two parts
Based on the play "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner
Libretto: Mari Mezei


The two-part play by Tony Kushner ("Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika") is one of the most important dramas of 20th century American literature. Both parts of the play were performed around the world in the 1990s, and have been filmed. The drama which lasts for seven hours has been re-structured by Mari Mezei and this opera version lasts between two, and two and a half hours. The premiere of the opera was take place in November 2004 in Paris, at the Châtelet Theater, the commissioners of this work.

The New York author Tony Kushner, very politically aware, describes the American neurosis at the turn to a new Millennium as a dark nightmare set within dramatic hallucinations. Many of the main characters are persons from real life, as for example Ethel Rosenberg, who has been sent by the criminal lawyer (Roy Cohn) - a collaborator of McCarthy - to death on the electric chair. Ethel Rosenberg´s spirit appears in Kushner´s play, and in the opera as well, to watch the painful death of AIDS suffered Roy Cohn.

Hallucination and reality merge perfectly in Angels in America. It is precisely this characteristic of Kushner´s play which has inspired me most to work on this piece. In my opera version, I do not focus so much on the political aspect of the piece, but instead emphasise the passionate relationships, the dramatic suspense created by the strong writing, as well as the shapeless condition of the hallucinations.
Prior Walter, the protagonist of the story, suffers from the AIDS virus. He knows he must die and in his battle for life, he imagines an angel (a woman) who orders him to save the world by being a prophet. In his vision, he ascends to heaven, but refuses the angel´s instructions with following words:

"I´ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much worse, but... You see them living anyway. When they´re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. If I can find hope anywhere, that´s it, that´s the best I can do. I want more life."
... he puts the angel´s book aside and returns back to earth.

(Peter Eötvös)

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Das zweiteilige Theaterstück (Millennium Approaches" und "Perestroika") von Tony Kushner gehört zu den wichtigsten dramatischen Werken der amerikanischen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Beide Stücke wurden überall in der Welt gespielt und auch verfilmt.

Das ursprünglich 7-stündige Monumentaldrama wurde von Mari Mezei neu strukturiert, diese Opernversion dauert nun etwa zwei bis zweieinhalb Stunden. Die Uraufführung der Oper fand im November 2004 im Theater Châtelet in Paris statt, das mir auch den Auftrag für dieses Werk gegeben hat.
Der politisch sehr engagierte New Yorker Schriftsteller Kushner beschreibt die amerikanische Neurose des Jahrtausendwechsels wie einen dunklen Alptraum in einer spektakulären theatralischen Halluzination. Viele der Hauptcharaktere waren reale Personen, wie z.B. Ethel Rosenberg, die von einem kriminellen Rechtsanwalt (Roy Cohn) - einem Mitarbeiter von McCarthy - auf den elektrischen Stuhl geschickt wurde. Bei Kushner und auch in der Oper erscheint der Geist Ethel Rosenbergs, um den qualvollen Aids-Tod von Roy Cohn mitzuerleben.

Halluzination und Realität gehen in diesem Stück nahtlos ineinander über. Diese Eigenschaft hat mich am meisten animiert, mit diesem Stoff zu arbeiten. In der Opernversion lege ich weniger Akzente auf die politische Linie als Kushner, vielmehr auf die leidenschaftlichen Beziehungen, auf die hochdramatische Spannung des wunderbaren Textes, auf den permanent schwebenden Zustand der Visionen.
Die Hauptperson der Gechichte, Prior Walter, bekommt den Aids-Virus, er weiß, daß er sterben muss. In seinem Überlebenskampf erfindet er einen Engel, der (in diesem Fall "die") ihm befiehlt, als Prophet die Welt zu retten. In einer Vision steigt er in den Himmel und lehnt den Auftrag vor den staunenden Engeln mit folgenden Worten ab:

"I´ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much worse, but... You see them living anyway. When they´re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. If I can find hope anywhere, that´s it, that´s the best I can do. I want more life."
--- dann legt er das Buch der Propheten ab und kehrt auf die Erde zurück.

(Peter Eötvös)

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La pièce de Théâtre en deux actes ("Millennium Approaches" et "Perestroika") de Tony Kushner compte parmi les oeuvres dramatiques les plus notables de la littérature américaine du vingtième siècle. Les deux parties furent jouées dans le monde entier et une adaptation cinématographique a été créée.

Ce drame monumental, dont la durée d´origine était de sept heures, a été restructuré par Mari Mezei. La durée de cette version lyrique est de deux heures á deux heures trente. La première de l´opéra était en novembre 2004 au Théâtre du Châtelet à Paris, qui m´a chargé de ma mission.
Kushner, un écrivain new-yorkais qui s´engage de plus en plus sérieusement en politique décrit la névrose américaine du tournant de siècle comme un sombre cauchemar d´une hallucination théâtrale spectaculaire.

Nombre des protagonistes de la pièce étaient des personnes ayant téellement existé, comme par exemple Ethel Rosenberg, qui fut envoyée par un juge criminel, collaborateur de McCarthy (Roy Cohn) sur la chaise électrique. Dans la version de Kushner, tout comme dans la version lyrique, l´esprit de Ethel Rosenberg réapparaît pour se faire le témoin de la mort Roy Cohn, atteint du SIDA.
Dans la piece, hallucination et réalité se recoupent totalement pour ne faire qu´un. Cette particularité est ce qui m´a poussé a entreprendre mon travail sur ce thème.

Dans la version lyrique, je mets moins l´accent sur l´aspect politique que Kushner, mais j´insiste plutôt sur les rapports passionnels, sur le suspens on ne peut plus dramatique de ce merveilleux texte, et sur l´immuable va-et-vient latent des visions.
Le personnage principal de l´histoire, Prior Walter, est séropositif. Il sait qu´il va mourir. Dans sa lutte acharnée contre la mort, il invente un ange féminin qui lui commande de se faire prophète pour sauver l´humanité. Sa vision le représente lui-mème en ascension vers le ciel et, au plus grand étonnement de l´ange, rejetant la mission qui lui est confiée, par ces mots.

"J´ai vécu des moments si durs, et des gens en vivent de tellement plus terribles encore mais... vous les voyez vivre malgré tout. Quand ils sont devenus des esprits plus que des corps, des souffrances plus que des peaux, lorsque les mouches pondent au coin des yeux de leurs enfants, ils vivent. Si je parviens à trouver de l´espoir partout, voilà, c´est le mieux que je puisse faire. Je veux plus de vie."
... pose de côté le Livre des Prophètes et s´en retourne sur terre.

(Peter Eötvös)

Angels In America – Full Synopsis

Angels in America focuses on the stories of two troubled couples, one gay, one straight: Louis Ironson and Prior Walter, and Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. After the funeral of Louis’s grandmother, Prior tells him that he has contracted AIDS, and Louis panics, realizing he cannot stand the strain and fear. Meanwhile, Joe is offered a job in the Justice Department by Roy Cohn, his right-wing, bigoted mentor and friend. But Harper, who is addicted to Valium and suffers anxiety and hallucinations, does not want to move to Washington.

The two couples’ fates quickly become intertwined: Harper and Prior meet, in a fantastical mutual dream sequence in which Prior, operating on the “threshold of revelation,” reveals to Harper that her husband is a closeted homosexual. Louis then leaves Prior in a fevered state, which causes Prior to begin hallucinating that he hears the voice of an angel telling him that he is a prophet. Harper confronts Joe about his homosexuality, which he denies but says he has struggled inwardly with the issue. Roy receives a different kind of surprise: At an appointment with his doctor Henry, he learns that he too has been diagnosed with AIDS. But Roy, who considers gay men weak and ineffectual, thunders that he has nothing in common with them—AIDS is a disease of homosexuals, whereas he has “liver cancer.” Henry, disgusted, urges him to use his clout to obtain an experimental AIDS drug. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who Roy helped convict, appears at his bedside.

Prior’s illness and Harper’s terrors both grow worse. Fortunately, Prior has a reliable caretaker in Belize, an ex-drag queen and dear friend. Prior confesses to Belize that he has been hearing a wonderful and mysterious voice; Belize is skeptical, but once he leaves we hear the voice speak to Prior, telling him she is a messenger who will soon arrive for him. Joe drunkenly telephones his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City to tell her that he is a homosexual, but Hannah tells him he is being ridiculous. Louis strays from Prior’s bedside to seek anonymous sex in Central Park at night, where he meets and later goes home with Joe. Hannah arrives in New York to find and help Joe, but she gets lost and is confronted by a homeless woman. In a tense scene, Joe tells Harper about his feelings, while simultaneously Louis tells Prior he is moving out.

The disconsolate Prior is awakened one night by the ghosts of two ancestors who tell him they have come to prepare the way for the unseen messenger. Tormented by such supernatural appearances and by his anguish over Louis, Prior becomes increasingly desperate. In the climax of Act One, Prior’s prophetic visions culminate in the appearance of an imposing and beautiful Angel who crashes through the roof of his apartment and proclaims, “The Great Work begins.”

In Act Two, after her dramatic arrival, the Angel gives Prior a prophetic book and explains that she seeks his help to halt the migratory tendency of human beings, which the Angels in Heaven believe tempted God to abandon them. God, she explains, left Heaven forever on the day of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and since then his Angels—whose vast powers are fueled by constant sexual activity—have been rudderless and alone. To reverse the trend, the Angel says humans must end their constant motion, their addiction to change. Not surprisingly, Prior is aghast at her words and vows to flee from her at all costs.

With Joe nowhere to be found, Hannah comes to Harper’s rescue in the depths of depression. She finally insists that Harper join her at the Mormon Visitor’s Center, where she has begun to volunteer. Roy learns that his political opponents plan to disbar him for an ethical lapse, but he vows to remain a lawyer until he dies. Ethel comes to observe him in his misery, and sings the Kaddish while Roy dies. Joe’s wife, on the other hand, spends her days at the Mormon Visitor’s Center watching a diorama of the Mormon migration featuring a father dummy who looks suspiciously like Joe. When Prior drops in to conduct research on angels, a fantasy sequence ensues in which Louis and Joe appear in the diorama.

Prior suffers an episode at the visitor’s center, where the Angel descends and Prior wrestles her. He succeeds, and is granted entry into Heaven to refuse his prophecy. In Heaven, which resembles San Francisco after the great earthquake, Prior tells the Angels that despite all his suffering he wants them to bless him and give him more life. The Angels sympathize but say they cannot halt the plague. He tells them should God return, they should sue Him for abandonment.

In 1990, four years later, Louis, Prior, Belize and Hannah appear in a moving epilogue. Prior says that the disease has killed many but that he intends to live on, and that the “Great Work” will continue.

Wroclaw Opera performance text:

Angels in America, a drama staged all over the world, is claimed to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. The author, Tony Kushner, regards to it as his best work and emphasizes that the world presented in Angels in America is the one he lives in. Kushner's piece achieved great success not only in the USA, but also in Europe and the Far East. It was awarded with many prestigious prizes, the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 among them. A film version of the drama was realised in form of a miniseries, produced by HBO, directed by Mike Nichols, with all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. The drama was staged in Poland for the first time in 2000 in the Wilam Horzyca Theatre in Toruń. Next staging was directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski in the TR Theatre in Warsaw in 2007.

Kushner's drama aroused Peter Eötvös's interest, an outstanding Hungarian composer, conductor and pedagogue. He is one of the leading contemporary musicians-creators and he also belongs to the best interpreters of 20th and 21st century music. His works became a canon for the greatest symphonic orchestras, groups and contemporary music festivals in Europe and around the world.

Angels in America was written to order for Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet. The composer could choose any opera theme. The beginning of the new century was a perfect opportunity to transform Kushner's drama into an opera, because of its first part's title - Millennium Approaches. Why did Eötvös like novels from Angels in America? The composer explained this in one of the interviews: "Prior, main character, is seriously ill and close to end of his life. He rejected death, however, and wanted to live. He found a method to do just that, making himself a prophet, who was entrusted with a mission of saving the earth. He created a character of an angel, who could help him. In fact Prior's angel doesn't exist, it remains a creation of his imagination." The composer's wife, Mari Mezei, undertook a difficult task of shortening the play that lasted over seven hours. It resulted in writing a libretto to the opera that lasted 140 minutes.

In Reagan's times, that is in the eighties, AIDS epidemic and homosexuality were a serious social issues in the USA. In Kushner's work they became a starting point of wider and deeper reflections on humans and society. Angels in America is an opera not only about love, but also about its lack. It shows both real and superficial emotions, kindness and cruelty of human being toward himself and others. The drama concerns the essence of political and social problems of the twilight of the 20th century USA, appearing in today's Europe and Poland. Most of all, Angels in America confronts two worlds with each other, material and spiritual, showing the essence of both.

Most interesting thing for Eötvös was the opposition of reality and abstraction, everyday life and hallucination, materiality and spirituality. The composer said, that this particular clash of reality and abstraction was a solid base for creating music. Because the drama is written by a New Yorker, the action takes place in New York during the times of first musical productions on Broadway, such as La Cage aux Folles, Cats or 42nd Street, Eötvös decided to add an American sound to his music. He experienced New York's life himself, as he had an opportunity to watch many musical productions, feel the atmosphere of this exceptional city and most importantly see the famous Bethesda Angel in Central Park, an important place because of the drama's action placement.

The world premiere of Angels in America in 2004 was a success, in the next few years concerts and shows took place in Germany (Hamburg State Opera, Frankfurt Opera), Netherlands (The Netherlands Festival in Amsterdam), Great Britain (London) and the USA (Boston, Fort Wroth ? Texas, and planned for January of 2013 concert in Los Angeles Philharmonic).

Angels in America opera arouses emotions, even though the music lacks showiness. Eötvös in a very consistent matter builds and leads action and characters - their emotions and personalities. Eötvös's music is widely eclectic, which means French spectral music is noticeable, as well as inspirations with Karlheinz Stockhauzen, electro-acoustic music and fascination with various cultures (e.g. American, Far East). Precision and diligence of the matter, richness of colours, spaciousness and deepness of music are special assets of Angels in America.  

What remains to emphasizing is the opera's message, and it is expressed by the main character Prior in his dialogue with an angel: "I live in terrible times, and there are people, who live far worse? You still see them alive, though. When they have more spirit than body, more wounds than skin, when flies lay eggs in corners of their children's eyes, they are still alive. If only I could find hope anywhere, it would be the best thing I could do. Bless me anyway. I want more life...