Sunday, October 7, 2012

Philippa - an opera [blog 4]

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


  1. Thanks for posting these drafts and sketches, Gordon. I've been enjoying the insight into how a libretto is put together, and seeing how you are "zooming in" on the story from the initial ideas. Keep them coming!

    I've also been trying to imagine the kind of music that would go with this... how much is a musical style/technique/orchestration/colour (or ANYTHING directly musical) in your mind at this stage? (besides the obvious music-within-the-story bits) Or do you want the composer to do their own thing? Or, ideally, would you be working with the composer at this early stage of planning the libretto?

    1. Hi David

      I have in mind a vast hinterland of music - what you would have heard in Harlem in the 30s and 40s, the classical repertoire and Vietnamese music that influences Philippa. I think this would be one of the drawcards of the piece.

      As for the degree of collaboration, with Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Andrew and I had long discussions about the music and libretto and took each other's suggestions on board. I would expect to have the same sort of to-and-fro. I wouldn't just hand the libretto over and wait to be surprised on opening night. But even if so, I would aim to write the libretto in such a way that it's obvious what pace, style, weight etc...could be tried at each stage. Piave and all those guys used set poetic metres to suggest to their composers (in his case, Verdi) what sort of music comes in at a particular place (see, The Tenth Muse), and a lot can be suggested by metre, rhyme (or not), concreteness (or not), simplicity (or not). For example, 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star/How I wonder what you are' doesn't suggest serial octave displacement.

      As well, I think there is precedent for a lot of functions for the music these days. The model is not just opera scores, but soundtrack. The music can range from silence under dialogue, to underscore, to full setting of text to symphonic interludes. I would prefer the music to set text that cries out for it. I often feel that in much contemporary opera they're singing stuff that doesn't cry out to be sung - eg, "Have you-ou-ou seen the shoppinglist?" and this is a turn-off to people who might otherwise be interested.