Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to run for public office in the once gay capital of the world: San Francisco. He symbolized gay rights at a time when there were none. He didn’t just run, he didn’t just get mad – he got elected. So did Dan White, ex-fireman, ex-policeman. He symbolized the old establishment, the resistance. He came out gunning for the liberals. And he fired the first shots. Fear had its first victim, its first martyr. The Milk train didn’t stop here any more. It hurtled into immortality. First there was Randy Shilt’s biography The Mayor of Castro Street, then Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning film documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and now the opera. Harvey Milk loved opera, he lived opera. He was predestined to become
the hero of an opera. “Who is Tessa Tura?” reads a line in Michael Korie’s smart, streetwise libretto (plenty more puns where that one came from). Harvey Milk knew the answer. Come on in, come on out.
Harvey Milk begins as it doesn’t mean to go on. First there was film noir, now there is opera noir. Stewart Wallace’s music plumbs the depths of high-tech melodrama. We hear tremulous strings and raspy trombone slides against a resonant backwash of tam-tam, guttural vocal chanting, and the chilly amplification of breathy expirations. The actual voice of Dianne Feinstein, President of the Board of Supervisors, is heard announcing the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Scarpia’s motif from Tosca lends a touch of old operatic melodrama to the new. Suddenly we are back at the Old Met in New York. The 1940s. And young Harvey is asking: “Who are these men without wives?”. The answers are to be found in Central Park at midnight. We cross-cut and dissolve between one location and the next. And while young Harvey grows up, the music trades in a kind of contemporary dream melodrama.
But not for long. Before you know it, we’ve hit the 1960s and Harvey’s Walk-in Closet (get it?) is swinging to a big-band beat. His closet lovers are a trio of Andrews Sisters clones (“I wish my closet was this clean,”). Like Harvey himself, it’s high time Wallace’s score came out – and it does. Harvey’s dramatic coming-out aria is already half-way to a Broadway anthem, a generous lyricism (sweet but not cloying) surfing minimalistic ostinatos. There’s a neat symmetry here with his big signing-off aria in the final act (added after the opera’s Houston premiere) – “I was born too soon and I spoke too late” – and a sense of fulfilment which will spill over in a sumptuous and heartfelt duet where Harvey (Robert Orth) finds not only his hippie-activist lover, Scott (Bradley Williams), but his motivation and vocation. This culminates in a touching, oboe-led, Bernstein-esque interlude as Scott cuts Harvey’s hair for the key role he must now play in all our lives.
Wallace’s score, like Korie’s libretto, is an eclectic reflection of the life and times of Harvey Milk. Mostly the vocal lines coast on their sometimes complacent, sometimes impatient ostinatos. There’s an urgency, a times-they-are-a’changin’ restlessness about them. There’s jazz, there’s rock, there’s funk suggested. And there’s a lot of Broadway in the mix. Broadway melodrama as in the West Side rumble of the Stonewall riot sequence; Broadway social realism as the Castro district (where it’s Hallowe’en all year round) wakes to a new day like Catfish Row on speed (note the allusory ripping-off of Stravinsky’s Rite as life explodes on to the streets here); and Broadway pazzazz as the first gay pride parade whistles its way downstage with so many Dolly Levys jostling for position at the head of the chorus line.
Harvey Milk is nothing if not up-front about itself. It’s vibrant, it’s exuberant, it’s occasionally awkward, even embarrassingly naive. But that’s all part of its honesty. Its heart is definitely in the right place. And there is – often where you least expect it – genuine inspiration. The failure of Milk’s first run for office is encapsulated in a single, unaccompanied plaint from the sixth grade Catholic schoolgirl, Medora, who became one of his staunchest followers: “One day, Harvey Milk will be Mayor, and I’m gonna be there”. Strong words, softly sung. It’s not all hard sell. And what a great idea to cast the ‘heavy’ of the piece, Dan White, as a sweet, lyric, Irish tenor (the excellent Raymond Very). There is tradition in his music, and through it we understand him as surely as he fails to understand others. That’s another strength of the libretto: it tries to be even-handed. In the final scene, the terrible report of gunshots is counterpointed with fragments from Milk’s taped political will. The final words “Come out” are tape-looped to repeat over and over again. And then Henry Wong (another of his disciples, memorably embodied in a countertenor, Randall Wong) leads the famous candlelit procession down Market Street – “like a midnight sunrise”. The mourners chant Kaddish. This Moses was gay.
I saw Harvey Milk at its Houston premiere in 1995, and this excellent recording is testament to how much better it is now than it was then. The authors have tightened, reworked, added, taken away, and generally honed their first efforts. The spirit came across then and it does so now with renewed conviction. American ‘opera’ is in good shape while pieces like this raise their voice. The year before he died, Leonard Bernstein said that he dreamed of the day when his next opera (the one he never got to write) might be presented on Broadway. Now I know what he meant.
-- Edward Seckerson, Gramophone [7/1998]
Works on This Recording
Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace
Robert Orth (Baritone),
Ray Very (Tenor),
Elizabeth [mezzo sop] Bishop (Mezzo Soprano),
Adam Jacobs (),
James Maddalena (Baritone)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra,
San Francisco Opera Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1994; USA
Length: 125 Minutes 29 Secs.
Featured Sound Samples
Act II, Part 2: "Scott, are you asleep"
Act II, Part 2: A Street Campaign
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
HARVEY MILK - SAN FRANCISCO OPERA May 28, 2012
By Luke Bryant (Oakleigh South, Victoria) See All My Reviews
"Stewart Wallaces important fifth full-length opera Harvey Milk with Libretto by Michael Korie was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera. This production by the San Francisco Opera will stand for many years to come as a stark reminder of self-righteous intolerance resulting in hate-crime toward those seen as different, not accepted as regular people struggling to survive in an adverse world with little justice. Harvey Milk opera creates a relentless movement forward from the 1940s to the 1970s, years before Dont ask dont tell (DADT) became redundant in 2011. It is startling, hilarious, distressful and jazzy with Broadway merged as in West Side Storys possibly Stonewall riot sequence plus the open realism of San Franciscos Castro Neighbourhood - fighting back to blend into The City. It is powerfully unmistakable. I am in accord with Edward Seckerson, (Gramophone: July 1998) when he wrote, And there is often where you least expect it genuine inspiration and I strongly recommend this 20/24-bit TELAC World Premiere CD recording to persons 15 and over of all beliefs without hesitation. Hear it; understand the true meaning of acceptance and responsible freedom in a democratic society. As the 2018, 40th commemorative of San Franciscos Mayor, George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milks hate-crime murder approaches, perhaps the San Francisco Opera may be the first opera company to rediscover one of its Cities famous heros by staging this serious modern opera again and release it on DVD? Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created Harvey Milk Day May 22 in 2009 and in 2012, there are serious moves toward the US Navy naming a ship Harvey Milk (Previously Harvey Milk spent 4 years in the US Navy) Luke Bryant - Australia."