Opera allows him all, 'Doubt' playwright says

Director Kevin Newbury, left, discusses a point with librettist John Patrick Shanley and composer Douglas Cuomo. Conductor Christopher Franklin works with singers in the background.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

This week, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley joined members of the Minnesota Opera to work on a new adaptation of his play "Doubt."

After the story of a priest accused of abusing a student became a huge Broadway hit, Shanley wrote the screenplay for its successful film adaptation. Now he is writing the libretto for the opera which get its world premiere in St. Paul in January.

Telling the story through opera allows Shanley to further explore nuances in the tale.

The Minnesota Opera's rehearsal space in the Minneapolis warehouse district is a massive vault of a room with a 30-foot ceiling. Yet, it becomes almost intimate as singers work through sections of "Doubt."

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"What do you do when you are not sure?" sings Karin Wolverton in the role of Sister Aloysius, the rigidly conservative nun who harbors deep suspicions about the popular parish priest Father Flynn.

Just feet away, John Patrick Shanley sits at a table with composer Douglas Cuomo and director Kevin Newbury. This is the second time they have actually heard the piece sung and they use the opportunity to refine the material.

"I think the music works really beautifully, actually. I really like it," Newbury says, to Shanley's agreement.

'Doubt' singers
Singers Victoria Vargas, Karin Wolverton, Adrianna Zaballa and Andrew Wilkowske take part in the "Doubt" workshop. Zaballa will play Sister James in the production when it premiers in January 2013.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"It gives her a melody at the beginning, it's what it does" Cuomo said. "Something that's also like a motif."

The group works quickly, tucking and tidying as they go. It's a complex task. They have to consider how the performance works musically, lyrically, and dramatically. Any change they make for the sake of one must also account for the effect it may have on the others.

When it comes to developing a production, Shanley said he learned a long time ago there is nothing to gain by waiting. He is due shortly on a plane back to New York.

"You never like to say 'Oh we'll talk about that later?' Can we talk about that now?" he said.

Shanley is unusual in the writing world. Not many playwrights get to write the screenplay for a movie based on their play. Even fewer get to write the operatic libretto. It's been a learning experience.

For the movie, Shanley says he has to re-write the story so that the dialog-heavy scenes work better for the camera. For the opera, he has had to learn new ways of working with nuance as the story is sung.

"I said to Doug Cuomo the composer that two people in the scene can be in complete disagreement but in musical terms they are very much in agreement, and that is a fascinating different kind of subtext," he said.

Minnesota Opera
The group of artists involved in the workshop for the Minnesota Opera production of "Doubt" worked for three days in the Opera's rehearsal space in the Minneapolis warehouse district.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Each version of the story has built on the one before, Shanley said.

"I would say it would be rough to go in reverse order, because it's hard to give things up, and in opera you got it all."

Working with Cuomo on the project has been an enjoyment, Shanley said. The composer is remarkably flexible compared with others Shanley has worked alongside over the years, he said. Although he admits his knowledge only goes so far, Shanley holds his own in discussions about the score.

"You know, he starts using these Italian expressions and I just cover my face in my hands," Shanley laughs.

"The thing about composers is they go off in total isolation and they write this stuff and fall in love with it. And it's really hard: it seems like reality to you and you don't feel that reality can change.

"There's almost always an initial resistance. You can see it in the body language of the composer you are talking to and then they start to listen or not listen. And [Cuomo] is very good about letting go of that preconception and taking in what you are talking about."

The Minnesota Opera production of Doubt is part of its New Works Initiative to commission new American operas.

The role of faith in society is always worthy of examination, in a play a film or an opera, Shanley said. One of the tantalizing issues in the production is the way some of the story's issues are left unresolved. It's led to countless animated discussions in theater lobbies. That's the point, he said.

"You don't really get to find out how things turn out most of the time," he said. "You get to find out bits and pieces and then you make a decision about it or you don't."

Shanley will be back in Minnesota for final rehearsals in December. Audiences will get to decide about the success of the opera in a little over six months, with the world premiere in late January at Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minn.