Opera explores modern themes in Queen Elizabeth's story

Brenda Harris as Queen Elizabeth in the Minnesota Opera production of "Roberto Devereux."
Image courtesy Minnesota Opera, photo Michal Daniel

In an age where TV dramas claim to be 'ripped from the headlines,' the Minnesota Opera's new show envisions Queen Elizabeth I of England as the world's first "Cougar." (That would be an older woman with a much younger lover.)

While that's a little tongue in cheek, "Roberto Devereux" does explore issues of politics, power, and religion which resonate today. The opera is not so much about a love triangle as a love square, steeped in the intrigues of the Elizabethan court.

Late in her life, Queen Elizabeth I was in love with the much younger Devereux, who was in disgrace because of a failed venture in Ireland. He was secretly in love with the Queen's friend, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. She was married to the jealous Duke of Nottingham, who treacherously plots Devereux's downfall.

He succeeds, and heartbroken, Elizabeth orders the execution of the man she loves.

For the Minnesota Opera production Brenda Harris will play the queen. It is Harris who came up with the cougar reference.

"It's a really interesting character study to me for her to be this woman who is indeed after a guy who is half her age," Harris said.

But of course not just any woman. The cast of "Roberto Devereux" has been doing a great deal of reading about Elizabeth and her times. Harris said Elizabeth led England into a new age where it became the dominant world power.

"Things were rocking in England, and she was really on top of exploration and finances and trying to get the people fed, and everything a good leaders should be. Although she was a quirky chick, there is no question."

"Things were rocking in England," she said. "And she was really on top of exploration and finances and trying to get the people fed; everything a good leader should be. Although she was a quirky chick, there is no question."

Quirky and very human, according to director Kevin Newbury. He said there's a wave of fascination with the Tudors at present, with a recent TV series and the Booker prize for Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," set in the court of Henry VIII.

Newbury said that, while we do know a lot about the Tudors, there's a lot we don't. "There's so much speculation, so it leaves the storytelling wide open," he said.

It's been over 400 years since Elizabeth died, but Newbury said the story of her life captures some very contemporary issues.

"She's a woman in power," he said. "We are so drawn to the idea of power right now, and public and private and how those things, how we vacillate from one to the other. So for me it's really about telling the big story about the public and private moments."

Plus, there is the religious debate, as Elizabeth continues the Reformation started by her father Henry the VIII when he broke with Rome and created the Anglican Church.

While there is a sizable cast in "Roberto Devereux," the responsibility for the production falls on the shoulders of Brenda Harris. Elizabeth is considered one of Donizetti more challenging roles. She said the research helps a great deal, but only to a point.

"Those pictures help so much, and reading history about Elizabeth just can do nothing but help flesh out what you are doing," Harris said. "But ultimately you've got the librettist and the composer, and those dead guys are the kings."

Newbury and Harris
Director Kevin Newbury is directing "Roberto Devereux" with Brenda Harris in the role of Elizabeth.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Roberto Devereux" opens this weekend. It's the first of three Tudor Operas written by Donizetti, which the Minnesota Opera will mount over three seasons. Next year, it will be "Mary Stuart," the story of Elizabeth's cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Then in 2012, there will be "Anne Boleyn," the story of Elizabeth's mother.

Kevin Newbury will direct all three and he likes that they will be done in reverse chronological order.

"Because the last image of the last opera is a young Elizabeth," he said. "And if you come see all three you get a sense of everything going back to that first moment when her father beheaded her mother. It's fascinating, when she was three years old and then she ruled England for 50 years."

And so perhaps it's not hard to imagine Elizabeth as the first cougar.

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