Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Philippa - an opera [blog 3]

As mentioned in my previous blogs on this subject [Philippa blog I, 16 September 2012 and blog 2, 18 September], I have been talking to people for some years now about an opera on Philippa Duke Schuyler, the Harlem-born concert pianist who died in Vietnam rescuing schoolchildren in 1967. 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. Below I've written a complete if rough synopsis which has placed the action mostly within the years 1966-67, ie. in a tighter time-frame to increase the urgency of Philippa's need to find a solution to her life's dilemma.

Philippa - an opera, ROUGH SYNOPSIS

5 October Amendments in red


JODY – mezzo
GEORGE – bass
PHILIPPA – soprano
YOUNG PHILIPPA – child soprano
VIETNAMESE CHILD - child soprano [or is this the same singer as for YOUNG PHILIPPA?]

In English, French, and Vietnamese

A Pontifical Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, 18 May 1967. We hear messages of condolence from luminaries of American public life – “to our beautiful black sister” from Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr., “to a fine American” from President Johnson…
The bereaved parents GEORGE SCHUYLER, the African-American journalist, and JODY (JOSEPHINE COGDELL), the wealthy white Texan, sit together. While the organist plays Philippa’s music, CARDINAL SPELLMAN mounts the pulpit. HE says they have come to commemorate the short life of Philippa Duke Schuyler, “a polymath”, pianist, composer, the second American [check] journalist to be killed in Vietnam when her helicopter plunged into the sea off Ðà Nãng”. JODY flares up in grief asking, “How can she rest in peace when her potential lies unfulfilled?” Her husband tries to comfort her but is rebuffed. “What are we celebrating?” she demands to know. The CONGREGATION raises its collective voice in affirmation of Philippa’s life, but is drowned out by the rotation noise of helicopter blades, and the tape of a Mayday call.

Act I Vietnam, 2 Sep -14 Oct, 1966
35 year-old PHILIPPA arrives in Saigon; there are gun emplacements and other signs of war. She is fascinated by a place which does not require of her “a centre of gravity”. THE CHAPERONE from the Embassy briefs her (a personal explanation of the war and some rules of behaviour). Oblivious to danger, PHILIPPA resents her chaperone’s restrictions because they remind her of Jody’s constant instructions at home. At home in New York she can’t act freely because ultimately she was always meant to be ‘America’s bi-racial genius’, a ‘beacon of hope’ in black and white worlds, to neither of which, however, she feels she fully belongs. SHE knows that while she is away in Vietnam, Jody will be back in New York reliving the odyssey of baby Philippa with the scrapbooks and reminiscences Jody has kept since Philippa was a baby; the scrapbooks PHILIPPA resents because they were meant to prescribe her life’s journey in minute detail. “They tell me what to do, but not what I must be; they tell me what to achieve, but not what I must become.”

Checking out the Saigon performance venue: a scene with AFRICAN-AMERICAN SERVICE MUSICIANS (SERVICEMEN). But PHILIPPA can only play classical music even here with these servicemen who assume she can ‘swing’. THEY inhabit a world that it is alien to her, even though she doesn’t relate to the whites. Frustrated, SHE reflects that she has looked everywhere for the perfect place for her, and she thirsts for knowledge of the servicemen’s world like a parched outsider. SHE relates how her parents met in Harlem in the 1920s and got married, hoping to make the world a less-divisive place. What THE SERVICEMEN tell her indicates how little has changed since then; they regard the white US servicemen as enemy [‘Charlie’] and the white servicemen hold them in the same contempt. THEY are amazed by her voracious thirst for knowledge, little suspecting the extent to which it diverts her deep-seated tensions. THEY offer to give her a lift up-country to see some action.

While sightseeing PHILIPPA gives her CHAPERONE the slip and discovers freedom (she can put on an aí daò and blend into the crowd, escaping physically (“No-one sees me”), if not psychically). THE SERVICEMEN pick her up for her trip.

In a hamlet in the countryside SHE stays the night after the SERVICEMEN have left. The VIET CONG come through. She overhears the COMMANDER speaking (after the fractured English and even fracturedVietnamese, the first fluent Vietnamese she has heard since arriving): “Chúng ta sẽ đánh đuõỉ bọn giạc ngoại xâm ra khoỉ đát nủởc” [which Philippa translates in Act II as ‘we will kick the foreigners out of our country’] and realises she has been taken for Vietnamese and left alone: “I can blend in here.” But identity has always been a torment. Her palpable relief at being able to “blend in” reveals that she has never felt at home anywhere else before, not when feted by Carnegie Hall audiences; not when regarded as an example to little American girls everywhere, nor hailed as the pride of Harlem...

PHILIPPA expresses her new-found freedom in new composition [cadenza I]. She can incorporate Vietnamese music, but the CHAPERONE, venting resentment of Philippa’s “disobedience”, tells her the embassy wants her to play classics in her concerts – even here she cannot escape branding. And she concedes that her “absorption” of Vietnamese culture may only be play-acting – “play-acting: the irritating habit of a lifetime!” SHE gives a “well-behaved” performance.

A priest she met at the concert has invited her to his orphanage in Hué, “a short helicopter ride from Ðà Nãng”. HE admired her book Jungle Saints about priests in Africa risking their lives to alleviate suffering in leprosariums, war-zones, slave labour camps... And wants to know if she has grasped at this as a personal mission. Then HE introduces PHILIPPA to the ‘orphans’, the CHILDREN of US servicemen and Vietnamese women. SHE is entranced: who are they? Are they wanted? Whose history are they being taught? What do they need?

Back in Saigon, the CHAPERONE brings PHILIPPA a telegram from Jody [are Jody and The Chaperone the same singer or just same voice type?]. Jody wants Philippa home. She is meant to be a professional musician (and, as it is always understood, an advertisement for the promise of mixed marriage). PHILIPPA doesn’t want to leave – she has discovered children who are between cultures just like she was, but aircraft engines (or the call of the piano?) start up. She goes.

Act II New York, 1966-7

The war is merely a report back in New York, but Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s complaints (on the radio?) about the war detracting from Civil Rights start GEORGE on one of his hobbyhorses; how the African-American does not need special pleading, ie. Civil Rights. [To George, the “Negro Art Hokum” was always appropriated by the ‘sympathetic whites’ who nevertheless “still wanted us to beat tom-toms and wave rabbits’ feet. It’s got to become unremarkable when we write a book or compose a concerto.”]

Meanwhile JODY is again mapping out Philippa’s future. This includes settling her down with a boyfriend after all the rejects who had less than “perfect qualifications” and playing the major venues, but PHILIPPA flares up: Jody’s dreams are unrealistic. She will not play those major halls again – the white audiences know she’s black (and no longer young, no longer cute and no longer politically safe). It’s all very well for George to think we should not segregate ourselves, claims PHILIPPA, but the whites do it for us – unless she passes herself off as someone else (and she has passed herself off as southern European!) The concerts George organises for her with the John Birch Society are galling to her. They ignore her as they unselfconsciously make racist remarks. And though George (the John Birchers’ token black) may deny it, the way she saw black GIs (the Servicemen) treated in Vietnam awakened her to discrimination, an added frustration for her now because she sees clearly why mainstream America fell away from her (although JODY is at pains to believe that America has not!)

As often happens in times of stress, JODY’s reminiscences ‘conjure’ the YOUNG PHILIPPA of the past, as she was in the 1940s, the little star, proving the greatness that can result from a ‘mixed-race’ marriage. SHE and GEORGE relive some of the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance when it seemed that African-Americans would break into the American mainstream via the arts, when George still had some fight. YOUNG PHILIPPA plays the piano while JODY re-reads the scrapbooks that plotted Philippa’s every step of progress. When JODY remembers, however, the way Philippa was struck dumb when presented with the books on her 13th birthday the playing stops. YOUNG PHILIPPA is presented with them: “Am I merely a project?” she says.

JODY is furious that Philippa now wants to devote her energies to “writing a book about the Amerasian orphans”. JODY: “Our daughter and her morbid attraction for war zones and conflict.” But she knows that right now Philippa would rather be at war, the perfect environment for her tempestuous urges.

PHILIPPA has met the man with “perfect qualifications” and bedded him. MR PERFECT QUALIFICATIONS discovers her new-found Catholicism and is bemused given her sexual aggressiveness. His scepticism offends her; she is in earnest. Her search for faith, for mysticism, for peace results in a composition, another cadenza. But what is her musical personality? YOUNG PHILIPPA joins her in the cadenza and, in her unspoiled simplicity, we sense the innocence Young Philippa enjoyed when in the cocoon of the Schuyler household, before white audiences woke up to the fact that she is “no longer young, no longer cute, and no longer politically safe”.

VARIOUS MEN IN PHILIPPA’S PAST (CHORUS) back up the doubts of Mr Perfect Qualifications. Acknowledging her fame, THEY never want to hear of her again, have tired of her strident demands, deplored this ‘mess’ of a human being who presented herself as different things to each of them. One of them in particular (JACQUES) mourns the child Philippa aborted (“our child”) because he might have proven her to be “black”. Another, the SOLDIER she recently met in Vietnam is disconcerted by the bitterness that is being expressed. “You’ll see,” say the others. “We will drive out the alien” – PHILIPPA remembers the words of the Viet Cong soldier who sat on her bed in a Vietnam hamlet. She’s got to get out of New York.

Act III, Mar- May 1967

New York:
For a moment GEORGE rekindles in JODY the tenderness that once lay at the heart of their little family project; how it came from a convention-defying love for each other, and their desire to create a “hybrid genius”. Bells peal when they recall their marriage and the prospects it held for America: “Jim’s whip scars will be healed”, sings JODY of the dream she had. “A thousand countrymen and neighbours will take the nooses from around their necks and come down from their hangman’s trees.” We know that she is speaking from experience of the immediate environs of her early life in rural Texas. SHE AND GEORGE reminisce about the young girl who was the favourite of magazine editors, and who had a Day named after her at the New York World’s Fair. Perhaps she will still fulfil their dream. “Not in Vietnam, she won’t,” mutters JODY.

In Hué, the MILITARY LIAISON person briefs the orphanage PRIEST on Viet Cong movements around the city.

PHILIPPA gets to know the orphans and their stories and problems; their ‘between worlds’ predicament resonates with her. What will Anh do with baseball gloves and a bat sent from an absent father? What use is the postcard foldout of Cleveland to Phứớng? And these are the lucky ones who have some communication with their fathers. What are their futures if the Communists win, if the South wins? We sense she is starting to empathise with the children but she is soon diverted, asking, “What is my future – as white, as black?” The PRIEST suggests she could teach, and PHILIPPA imagines what her mother would say to her staying on in Vietnam; SHE bitterly tells him Jody’s reaction to her proposed book. The PRIEST is disappointed by her harking back to her own issues. She doesn’t seem to live by the premise of her own book, Jungle Saints.

Cadenza before attack, PHILIPPA extemporizes a piece called The Racial Conflict at Home, a piece attempting to blend the various styles of music in her background, which begins with one of YOUNG PHILIPPA’s childish pieces forming a core. But does ‘home’ mean the USA or 270 Convent Avenue? The cadenza builds however into a big ensemble number reflecting conflicting points of view: CHORUS OF WHITES: “Don’t expect anything to be better when you get back home, ‘Charlie’”; BLACKS: “We will have equality by any means necessary”; VIET CONG: “We will drive the alien out.” PHILIPPA grieves that she is still no closer to resolving her own competing demons.        

The MILITARY LIAISON person tells the orphanage staff to get out of Hué. For some reason, PHILIPPA does not leave, but says she will pull strings with her chaperone to persuade the military to supply helicopters to ferry the children to safety. SHE dismisses messages from Jody who is panicking that she has travelled so far up country and has booked concerts trying to force her home.

9 May 1967, Sounds of gunfire. The Viet Cong are close. The PRIEST hustles children to waiting helicopters. PHILIPPA comes to ask if she can help; she has rounded up some of the children; she has thrown away her music and her notebooks. The PRIEST says “get out of here”. HE realizes one of the children is missing. HE asks Philippa to take his place on the helicopter about to leave, but PHILIPPA rushes off instead. A SOLDIER says, “Father, we have to get that chopper off.” The PRIEST decides to leave, but says, “Make sure the lady journalist gets on the last one out.” HE leaves. PHILIPPA comes back with the missing orphan. There is only one seat left. The SOLDIER straps her in. HE AND PHILIPPA lock eyes; it is clear she had a liaison with him. The CHILD is placed on her lap. (The CHORUS back at St. Patrick’s bursts into song.) As the rotor blades start with a blast, drowning out everything, PHILIPPA begins to sing. At first she cannot be heard, but then - as the rotor blade sound dies down, SHE is soaring aloft in her own world, stroking the head of the child in a spirit of selflessness, singing of long-eluded fulfillment.

The congregation back at St. Patrick’s have now reached the Agnus Dei (“qui tollis peccata mundi...”)

Jody says, “I will kill myself. What have I left to live for?”

Dona nobis pacem

NOTES: still a need for more obvious musical design; less reminiscence and back-announcing

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