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TABLE WORK: Staging The Stronger

October 11, 2012

August Strindberg c. 1900

American composer Hugo Weisgall (1912 – 1997) composed his one-act opera, The Stronger, in 1952, some 63 years after Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) wrote the brief play of the same name (Den starkare) upon which it is based.

The original play is set in its own present day, presumably in Sweden, on Christmas Eve. Two women, friends by some definition, encounter each other in a cafe. One speaks, the other listens. Strindberg experiments with naturalistic form in the work, which takes roughly 10 minutes to perform. It is a sketch of two women of a certain age and a certain milieu.

Weisgall’s opera, with a libretto by Richard Hart, is also set in its own present day, Christmas Eve 1955 (the year he adapted his original 1952 piano and voice version for orchestra). Again, it is a sketch of two women set in specific personal and historical time. The opera is in English, and the assumed setting is the United States. Although the opera elongates the performance time to roughly 25 minutes, Weisgall and Hart saw in the play enough that spoke directly to America in the 1950s that the essential thrust of the text is basically unchanged with only specific cultural references updated. In fact, there is less text in the opera. Hart’s libretto reads like an atmospheric, almost impressionistic version of the original play, allowing Weisgall’s score to create mood and move the performers and audience through the action.

Sara Salas in rehearsal for The Stronger

This week, VOX 3 Collective gives two performances of the opera. Roughly the same amount of time has passed between these performances and the opera’s premiere as between the opera’s composition and the play’s. Working with such a pared down text against such a specific setting invited the production team to engage in aggressive, exploratory table work. For instance, my co-director, VOX 3 Artistic Director Brian von Rueden, challenged the performers to read the text of the libretto to each other, alternating lines, in order to tease out possible moods, emotions, and colors in a text that would ultimately be sung.

Fully a third of rehearsal time was spent doing such table work, discussing possible motivations, filling in back stories, thinking about the events that these women would have lived through (the Great Depression, World War Two), discovering who they could be within the context of time and place. Although much is left mysterious in the actual text, both Sara Salas, who plays Estelle, and Kimberly Gunderson, who plays Lisa, know the woman she inhabits.

During our work, we looked at a literal translation of Strindberg’s original, which expanded the possible meanings of moments in the libretto. It was one of many jumping off points for ideas, but we always returned to our understanding of Weisgall’s score as the ultimate interpretive authority. For instance, we could not make a performance decision that ran contrary to what the music was telling us. If the music was building in a tense crescendo, we took our interpretive answer from that and rejected the possibility of an emotional ebb in the performance. If the music allowed for a pause or a beat, we played with what was possible in that moment, attempting to reveal empathy and even humor. Sara’s extensive work with the score, in particular, kept us grounded as we questioned each other, threw out ideas, revised our understandings, and teased out possible meaning.

We focused on the opera’s setting in the mid-1950s. In some ways, the expectations of public interactions, the presence of manners and etiquette from that time connect more readily to the late-nineteenth century sensibility of the original play than to our own. Much can be said or implied in what is otherwise polite conversation, allowing for rich, often unanticipated texture. We discussed with great specificity the decades, years, and moments leading up to Estelle and Lisa’s encounter. Kim’s performance in particular is informed both by inspirations from the era (Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, for example) and more contemporary works that look back at that time (Cate Blanchett in The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Ultimately, though, the encounter between these women, their tension and familiarity, engages the audience whether the experimentation be theatrical or musical in form, or whether the story be told in English or Swedish. It is this universality that allowed Sara and Kim to bring their twenty-first century selves to these mid-twentieth century women, who are echoes twice again of their Swedish originals.

The Stronger is performed as part of Sleepwalking Nights: Strindberg in Opera and Song Friday, October 12 at 7pm at Swedish American Museum and Saturday, October 13 at 3pm at Bethany United Church of Christ.

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