Sunday, September 16, 2012

Philippa - an opera [blog 1]

For some years now, I've been developing an idea for an opera on the life of the Harlem-born concert pianist, Philippa Duke Schuyler. She was the daughter of the black journalist, George Schuyler, and wealthy white Texan, Josephine Cogdell, who thought that if they combined their superior genes they would produce a genius and show America a way out of the racial divide. And Philippa was a genius, playing her own compositions with the New York Philharmonic when she was barely into her teens.

I first came across Philippa's name when I was writing a concert booklet note on Clara Schumann and going through The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. I noticed an entry for Philippa Duke Schuyler and my eye immediately fell on the following facts - born Harlem, USA 1931; died Ðà Nãng, Vietnam 1967. What music that conjured up (classical musician born just after the Harlem Renaissance dies in Vietnam)! But also: during the Vietnam War? I've always been intrigued by musicians who live an active life. What was Philippa doing there then?

Playing, partly. Opportunities had dried up for her back home once she was no longer cute and unproblematic for white audiences and she had taken to playing in more out-of-way places (for classical music, that is.) But she was a tormented soul, never quite figuring out who she was (at one stage she even changed her name to Felipa Monterra y Schuyler, wanting to be southern European) and in Vietnam she had ultimately come across 'the orphans', the unwanted children of US servicemen and Vietnamese women. They focussed her attention. Between cultures like her, they aroused her deepest sympathy and she had started helping them. It was during a North Vietnamese attack on Hué that she lost her life ferrying schoolchildren to safety on a chopper which ditched into the sea off Ðà Nãng. Only she and one of the orphans and another serviceman failed to survive. She received a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral and President Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr extolled her life. I found in the States last year, though, that few people even in classical music had heard of her.

My question is: was this a wasted life? She didn't fulfil her musical potential, but...miserable, tormented, never knowing 'what I am', had she finally put herself aside? Is it possible to see her life like that?

I have been talking to people about this opera for some years now - nutted out some scenarios and a very rough first draft. David Hirschfelder and I even wrote a 'trailer' (a short scene) some years back. But now I've decided to work on the piece in the open, via my blog, until such time as someone commissions it or the libretto (or opera) is finished. Why not? It may be one way to engender support in the absence of any formal structure.

My initial ideas for this opera covered a large span of her life - flashbacks from the funeral covering her early life in Harlem, her journalistic career in The Congo just as independence turned into a bloodbath (and made her want to disavow any African heritage), to her combined roles as musician and journalist and doer of good works in Vietnam in 1967. I produced the following synopsis:

Philippa – operatic synopsis:

In English, French, Vietnamese and Kituba
This is the story of the agony of confused identity, transcended ultimately in a spirit of self-sacrifice. May 18, 1967: the Requiem for Philippa Duke Schuyler; and words of praise from Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, President Johnson and others. But this famous musician died in a helicopter crash off Ðà Nãng. Was her life wasted? Philippa’s parents GEORGE and JODY return to their Harlem apartment and JODY, the white Texan heiress, turns to GEORGE, her African-American journalist husband, and says, “You are to blame.” 
GEORGE and JODY’s argument conjures the YOUNG PHILIPPA of the 1940s, unquenchably curious, who learns music and composition before our very eyes and becomes an inspiration to “little girls everywhere”. JODY believes GEORGE is responsible for wasting Philippa’s unique blend of talents. She had thought the idea behind mixing their genes was to create a musical genius, but George had not pushed Philippa hard enough. Yet (FINALE), after years of early study, “classical music’s mulatto Shirley Temple”, happily plays her own compositions with the New York Philharmonic.

Returning to the day of the funeral, GEORGE hits back, accusing JODY of pushing Phillipa too hard. But JODY unleashes a long-held resentment: “It was your Africa that ruined our genius girl.”
In 1960, no longer cute, PHILIPPA has begun to bear the full brunt of racial discrimination and resorted to playing in out-of-the-way places. Invited to play at the independence celebrations of a former African colony, she pushes on with her recital despite the sound of approaching gunfire. In a street after a massacre, she befriends a priest risking his life to deliver last rites. Both wonder how the other can push on with what they have to do. Though Philippa hears the music of an ideal Africa of the past, she decides to change her name to Felipa Monterra y Schuyler, and pose as a Southern European, to improve her chances of engagement. GEORGE is upset, though he himself aspires to membership of white establishment (and has even joined the far-Right John Birch Society). But JODY is relieved. It is a cold logical decision Philippa has made in the spirit of “sacrifice for one’s career”.

But PHILIPPA is furious when JODY ends Philippa’s relationship with her lover, Rivère “because it was distracting me from my destiny”. The sad fact is PHILIPPA searches desperately for love in the arms of even the most inappropriate men. When she meets the Englishman, RAY, she anticipates that he will re-open career doors that had been closed to her. But he flees her desperate love-starved advances.

Still torn by the question of her identity, PHILIPPA discovers that she is pregnant – to an African politician. Rather than face the prospect of her child being “more black”, she decides to have an abortion. As she prepares (FINALE) for a return to the concert platform in London with the Philharmonia, all the lovers in her life wish never to hear ‘the name of that narcissist’ again. 

May 18, 1967: For a moment GEORGE rekindles in JODY the tenderness which lay at the heart of their little family experiment to prove ‘the American genius of hybridization’, but JODY panics: affection might distract her from her need to mourn. George was “ineffectual”; he couldn’t even instil in Philippa a ‘professional skepticism’. “The influence she might have had on little girls everywhere,” mourns JODY.

As JODY and GEORGE’s spat flares up again, a PRIEST, one of the guests from the funeral, arrives. He recounts how he knew Philippa in Vietnam, where she had gone to play her last concerts. Philippa struck him as a child, lost, not quite knowing who she was, though unflinching in her “journalistic” curiosity to see the war. She had ventured north to Hué – JODY doesn’t wish to hear.  FINALE: Philippa had “discovered the ‘orphans’, the children of Vietnamese women and US servicemen. It was almost as if she’d found herself.” JODY blocks her ears as the ‘orphans’ sing and play instruments. But GEORGE is listening. The PRIEST continues: it was 9 May 1967; we had received intelligence of North Vietnamese movements in the city… JODY threatens to kill herself if the PRIEST continues. She comforts herself with Sammy and Ella’s ‘words of praise’. The PRIEST recounts the events leading up to the evacuation; the approach of the NVA; the early sounds of rifle fire: Only one helicopter remains. PHILIPPA has run off to find one unaccounted-for orphan. Time presses. The PRIEST is getting anxious. The sounds of gunfire get louder. PHILIPPA returns. Placing the orphan in her lap, they strap her in; the rotors start… Then she sings of fulfilment.  

I did a scene breakdown with the following cast:

Philippa – opera: Cast

JODY – mezzo
GEORGE – bass
YOUNG PHILIPPA – child soprano
PHILIPPA – soprano
PRIEST – tenor
DENNIS – tenor
PRIEST II – bass
SOLDIER – tenor
VIETNAMESE CHILD - child soprano


But I won't lumber you with the whole of that for now. After writing that proposal I came up with another idea: of writing a chamber opera version which could do double duty as a piano concerto, to acknowledge Philippa's virtuosity. The three acts therefore become three movements, each with cadenzas. Clearly, it is envisaged that the woman playing Philippa is not only a singer but a pianist - a tall casting order? But it was also envisaged that Young Philippa would play the piano too.

The major criticism of the above proposal however is that its epic sweep vitiates dramatic pressure. 'Start as late as possible' I was reminded recently. Meaning: where the deciding crisis arises.

My most recent thoughts, therefore have been to begin the story in Vietnam, Fall 1966 (Act I), during Philippa's first trip to Vietnam where her frustrations come to a head, where the fact she is finally fed-up can drive the plot, but where she finally discovers the orphans. Jody is the protagonist in the background constantly pushing her to fulfil her destiny and calling her home - she has concerts to give. Act II therefore takes place in New York over the winter where nothing has improved, no prior solution has worked, where George and Jody's ambitious dream has failed and Philippa is no longer accepting of the verities of her upbringing. She escapes in Act III back to Vietnam, fuller immersion in the lives of the orphans, and then - death. The piece is still book-ended by the Mass at St. Patrick's.

page 1 of ideas for a new synopsis, included really for illustrative purposes. Pink highlighting shows the title and Prologue and Act I. You probably can't read this, but I'll write it up and post this synopsis once I feel it's presentable.

Act II ideas
Act III. You might notice that it comes back to the cathedral (Act III): 'Agnus Dei...' I don't want to lay it on with a trowel, but I find it interesting that Philippa grasped at Tarot and fortune-telling and eventually converted to catholicism - and laid down her life in the service of others.

I'll talk about this latest version in a forthcoming blog, but even today (after reading about the vibrant artistic activity around the Harlem Renaissance and realising that George and Jody's idea of producing a wunderkind was kind of a last blast of the renaissance's artistic idealism), I wonder if beginning with a Mass is too flat. Does a Mass have to be flat? I also realise that I need to do more work to work out what would appeal to an audience, as opposed to me, in this story.

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