SANTA FE, N.M. — World premier of ‘Oscar’ is Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera
For countertenor David Daniels, playing Oscar Wilde slices deep into the marrow.
The singer the Chicago Tribune crowned “the gold standard among countertenors” has certainly tackled big roles before.
“I sang Julius Caesar,” the openly gay singer said between fittings for the Santa Fe Opera world premier of “Oscar” on Saturday.
“I’ve always been in love with Cleopatra or Violetta,” he added. “‘Oscar’ has been the most emotional situation I’ve ever encountered in life, other than losing my parents.”
Daniels commissioned composer Theodore Morrison, who was his choral professor at the University of Michigan, and librettist John Cox (who happens to be a Wilde scholar) to create “something I could connect with.” His request was that vague, sans direction, much less personal.
The pair chose the catastrophic story of Oscar Wilde’s trial, conviction and imprisonment for “gross indecency.”
Known for his searing wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, Wilde penned both “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890). He was at the height of his fame and powers when he fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Prodded by Bosie, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel after Queensberry left a calling card at the writer’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde —— posing Sodomite.” The trial transformed into a cause célébre as salacious details of Wilde’s homosexual liaisons emerged.
Bosie was driven by the “total hatred” he felt for his father, who rejected him because of his sexuality, Daniels said. Wilde’s friends discouraged him from pursuing the lawsuit, which he lost.
Bosie haunts Wilde’s imagination throughout the opera, portrayed by dancer Reed Luplau.
“Bosie was the most famous blonde gay boy in the world,” Daniels said. “We’re portraying this as if it’s the love of (Oscar’s) life. I don’t think Bosie was all flowers and butterflies.”
Neither was Wilde. Daniels said he was surprised to learn exactly how debauched the writer’s life had been. He and Bosie frequented prostitutes, often together.
“I’m sure he had 8,000 boys and gave silver cigarette cases to every one he met,” Daniels said. “But we want to believe they were the loves of each other’s lives.”
The judge sentenced Wilde to two years’ hard labor in a Victorian prison.
Accustomed to a life of luxury, Wilde faced a brutal confinement. Victorian prisons were notorious for their daily meals of bread, cheese, gruel and suet. Wardens gave him a bucket for a toilet and a plank for a bed. No books or pens were allowed. Prisoners were forced to wear masks so they could not speak except in chapel. They turned a crank or ran a treadmill for six hours a day as punishment.
“And all of this for loving a same-sex person,” Daniels said.
Although Daniels’ parents were supportive of his own sexuality, he faced a violent demonstration of homophobia when he was in his 20s.
“I was beaten up horribly when I was in South Carolina when I was 22 years old,” he said. Hospitalized, he never knew if his attacker was caught or charged.
His family provided the grace note.
“My parents were the most unconditionally loving people on the planet,” he said.
Daniels is the son of two voice teachers who grew up in Spartanburg, S.C. His father was one of the premiere members of the performing faculty during summers at the Brevard Music Center.
My parents “encouraged and supported me, but they never pushed,” Daniels said. “I was 3 years old when I was in (Puccini’s) ‘Gianni Schicchi.’ I was a boy soprano. I never wanted to do anything else.”
Daniels plays Wilde as the literary genius’ health plummets in prison and he spends two months in the infirmary. He died penniless in Paris of cerebral meningitis at 46.
With the exception of a single 30-minute intermission, Daniels spends nearly three hours singing and performing on stage.
The music is difficult, he said.
“It’s great music, but it’s tough music,” he said. “It’s so tough because it’s got an edge and a bite to it that’s amazing. The orchestra loves it; that’s rare to see. Some of them wanted the libretto to read.”
The singer first approached SFO general director Charles MacKay about staging the piece in 2008.
“I gave him a demo tape we had made in Ann Arbor,” he said. “I knew (Santa Fe) had a history of being open to new works.”
Daniels made his critically acclaimed Santa Fe debut in the title role of Handel’s “Radamisto” in 2008, returning as Roberto in Vivaldi’s “Griselda” in 2010.
“Oscar” particularly resonates just weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage, Daniels said.
“But think of all the hate that’s still out there,” he added.
Daniels recently visited Paris’ Pére Lachaise Cemetery to see Wilde’s tomb. Today he considers the writer a hero. The epitaph is a verse from the author’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.”