World premiere of 'Doubt' opera in St. Paul this weekend

Doubt MN Opera
Matthew Worth, as Father Flynn, and Christine Brewer, as Sister Aloysius, star in the Minnesota Opera production of "Doubt." The show will have its world premiere on Jan. 26, 2013, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.
Michal Daniel/Photo © Michal Daniel, 2013

After life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and then an Oscar-nominated film, "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley will have its world premiere as an opera this weekend in St. Paul.

Shanley said the Minnesota Opera production is the most complete telling of his story about a priest accused of impropriety.

At a rehearsal at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Shanley, the playwright, screenwriter and now librettist, sat with a half-smile on his face as watched from a seat in the auditorium.

"When I first heard my characters sing things that they had spoken before," Shanley said, "it is like suddenly walking through a door where all the rules are different."

"Doubt" is set in a parochial school a year after the Kennedy assassination. Most of the students and teachers like their priest, Father Flynn. But the school principal, the unbending Sister Aloysius, suspects the priest of inappropriate behavior toward the school's only black student, Donald Miller.

"Something is either true, or it is not true," sings Christine Brewer in the role of Sister Aloysius. "And the truth will find us if we stand still, with eyes unblinking."

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The conceit of "Doubt" is that Father Flynn's guilt or innocence is left ambiguous. It is up to each audience member to decide. As a play "Doubt" had just four characters. The movie added more characters and locations, but Shanley said the addition of music and a chorus of parishioners and students allowed a whole other dimension to the story, far beyond the words they speak.

'Doubt' at Minnesota Opera
Christine Brewer, left, as Sister Aloysius, with Adriana Zabala as Sister James, in "Doubt" at the Minnesota Opera.
Michal Daniel/Photo © Michal Daniel, 2013

"You can go into the mind and the heart of Sister Aloysius, who is in some sense a protagonist," Shanley said, "and you can hear what her thoughts, feelings are -- her reaction to this priest's initial sermon."

Shanley credited composer Douglas Cuomo for adding layers to his story. It was Cuomo who first suggested that "Doubt" would make a good opera.

"I really loved John's language, and it's very, very musical," Cuomo said. "The play is just full of great, wonderful lines, and as I was just reading them, I was like, 'Oh my God, this would be so great to set this line to music.'"

But Cuomo faced a number of challenges. His score had to become part of the psychological construct of the story. He designed it to engender a sense of unease, of doubt. He played with chords, adding extra notes here and there.

"You have this feeling, sort of bitonality in a sense," he said, "of these two things happening at once that together add up to something that is slightly unsettling, slightly off-kilter."

But even as he was creating unease, Cuomo had to make sure the music did not point to any conclusions about Father Flynn's innocence or guilt.

Director Kevin Newbury, left, talks with librettist John Patrick Shanley and composer Douglas Cuomo, and conductor Christopher Franklin (background) works with singers, as the opera production of "Doubt" was in workshop in June 2012.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"Doubt" is the fifth production in the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative. The last piece, "Silent Night," the story of the 1914 Christmas Armistice, won a Pulitzer for its score.

Artistic director Dale Johnson does not like to speculate about the success of any new piece,but he does always hope.

"We are trying to make an opera that lives on," he said, "that will enter the repertoire, somehow."

Johnson believes there is a slowly building interest in new operas, of productions that tell the stories of contemporary life. And given the success of the play and film versions of "Doubt," there is a precedent for this story to do well.

Whatever happens, Shanley is now hooked on what for him is a new art form. His next project? He would like to do an opera based on the screenplay for a musical he wrote back in the 1980s: "Moonstruck."

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