As mentioned in my previous blogs on this subject [Philippa blog I, 16 September 2012, blog 2, 18 September, and blog 3, 25 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 one-page synopsis to check if the story can fit into a digestible "two hours' traffic on the stage". Can it?
Philippa - Synopsis
This is a story of the agony of confused identity, transcended ultimately in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Prologue: May 18, 1967: the Requiem Mass at New York’s St.Patrick’s Cathedral for Philippa Duke Schuyler; and words of praise from Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, President Johnson, and others. But this famous concert pianist, daughter of African-American journalist George S. Schuyler and wealthy white Texan Josephine Cogdell (Jody), died “too young” in a helicopter crash off Ðà Nãng. JODY wants to know how Philippa can “rest in peace when her potential lies unfulfilled” and rejects GEORGE’S attempts at consolation. Philippa’s life, she believes, was wasted.
Act I: In September 1966, 35 year-old PHILIPPA arrives to give concerts in then-South Vietnam at the invitation of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. She is confronted by signs of war but bridles at the protectiveness of the embassy. Her chaperone’s “stifling rules” remind her of growing up with Jody who mapped out her every move, planning for her to grow into America’s “bi-racial genius, a beacon of hope to black and white worlds”. But Philippa is no longer comfortable in either world. Life has been difficult since she ceased to be “the cute little girl, classical music’s mulatto Shirley Temple”. She has had to perform further and further off the main circuits and has desperately searched for other forms of self-expression. In Vietnam she discovers that she can slip into an aí daò and pass for Vietnamese, moving with perfect freedom through enemy territory, but this is merely “play-acting”; something she has been doing most of her life. Returning to Saigon for concerts, she wonders if she will ever find an answer to her life’s dilemmas. Then, at a convent school, a PRIEST introduces her to the ‘orphans’, offspring of American servicemen and Vietnamese women and SHE is entranced by children who are “between cultures” as she is. SHE decides to devote more time to them, but JODY has booked concerts back in the States.
Act II: In Harlem, New York over the winter, JODY continues to plot out Philippa’s future – guaranteeing “continuity” by finding her a Mr Right (“after all those Mr Wrongs”) and mapping out a showcase career. But PHILIPPA is under no illusions; she will never play the major venues again. And she is angry with George who has arranged concerts for her with the John Birch Society. Having witnessed discrimination against black servicemen doing the work of whites in Vietnam, she has grown weary of her father’s “contrary opinions” on Civil Rights. All the old arguments arise: George and his “we’ve got to not be separate....It’s got to become unremarkable when we write a book or compose a concerto”; Philippa and her “‘closed doors’ of the whites” and her “insulting” (George’s word) desire to pass herself off as southern European... But this time PHILIPPA’s bitterness rises to a higher-than-usual peak and things are said which will be difficult to unsay.
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. JODY and GEORGE relive the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance when it seemed that African-Americans would break into the American mainstream via the arts and YOUNG PHILIPPA, the prodigy, plays the piano while JODY re-reads the scrapbooks that plotted Philippa’s every step of progress. JODY remembers, however, the way Philippa was struck dumb when presented with the books on her 13th birthday. “Was I a mere project?” the older PHILIPPA asks, and the playing stops.
Almost in defiance of her mother, PHILIPPA meets and beds ‘Mr Right’. Given her sexual aggressiveness, HE is bemused when he discovers her Catholicism (something not shared with her parents). She is offended – she has had to find answers to life’s questions somewhere - but ALL THE OTHER MEN OF HER PAST (CHORUS) back up MR RIGHT’S low opinion of her. One of them, an AFRICAN POLITICIAN, mourns the son she aborted because he might prove to be “too obviously black”. PHILIPPA determines to get out of New York.
Act III: Briefly, in Philippa’s absence, GEORGE rekindles in JODY the tenderness which lay at the heart of their little family experiment to prove ‘the American genius of hybridization’. They hoped that Philippa’s birth would undo the hatred between American blacks and whites after hundreds of years of “lynchings and slayings”. But JODY feels Philippa’s mission will stall if she stays in Vietnam.
While PHILIPPA gets to know the children in a Hué orphanage, a MILITARY LIAISON briefs the PRIEST on North Vietnamese Army movements around the city. PHILIPPA determines that, as a journalist and writer, she is in a unique position to promote the orphans’ case to the world and wonders if she has found the answer to her own torments in burying herself in their needs. But gunfire is already being heard in the streets.
9 May 1967 ... the approach of the NVA; closer sounds of rifle fire: there is a desperate need for evacuation. 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. SHE has left behind her music and notebooks and the voices of the parents, critics and men-friends. Placing the orphan in her lap, THE SOLDIERS strap her in; the rotors start… Then, as the sound of the rotor blades die down, we hear her voice - singing of fulfilment. (Epilogue) The CHOIR back at St. Patrick’s bursts into song.
G.K. Williams, 8 Oct 2012