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Recordings

The Thief of Love
17 Jan 2007

SILVER: The Thief of Love

If the audience for new American art music seems small and is (supposedly) shrinking, then the audience for new American operas is even more exclusive.

Sheila Silver: The Thief of Love

Gwendolyn Hillman, James Brown, Manami Hattori, Michael Douglas Jones, Myeongsook Park, Stony Brook Opera, David Lawton (cond.)

Hummingbird Films

$19.99  Click to buy

If the audience for new American art music seems small and is (supposedly) shrinking, then the audience for new American operas is even more exclusive. All too often, freshly composed operas, if they are performed at all, are promptly shelved—even when they are received with much praise from opera enthusiasts. Opera production is simply too expensive and labor intensive for unproven works to receive many performances; and without the exposure afforded by a long run, there is little chance for an opera to enter the repertory. Filmmaker John Feldman has attempted to break this oft commented-upon cycle with his film production of The Thief of Love, an opera by his wife, Sheila Silver.

Composed between 1981 and 1986 and revised in 2000, The Thief of Love received its premiere in March 2001 by the Stony Brook Opera and Orchestra conducted by David Lawton. In the days leading up to the performance, Silver and Lawton were so impressed with the students’ work, as well as with the lighting, set design, costumes, and makeup, that they readily agreed when Feldman offered to digitally record the performances. Feldman used several cameras to record both the Friday evening and Sunday afternoon performances, rather than stationing a single camera in the back of the auditorium, a practice that many small opera companies use to create an archival tape of their performances.

Over the next three years Feldman edited the footage on his own time and between projects to produce a film version of The Thief of Love complete with subtitles special effects, and thoughtful use of the various camera angles. In a panel discussion following the DVD’s premiere screening on December 4, 2006 at the 92nd Street Y’s Steinhardt Building, Feldman pointed out that the film production was more or less a gift to his wife. The cost of his time, had she been required to pay him is far beyond the budget of most university opera companies. This production of The Thief of Love is a rare opportunity for viewers to experience a production that otherwise would be available only to the members of the audience present on March 9 and 11, 2001.

For The Thief of Love, Silver wrote her own libretto based on an 18th-century Bengali court tale as translated in 1963 by Edward C. Dimock. Vidya (Gwendolynn Hillman) is an independent and learned princess who has vowed to marry the man who can beat her in debate. Over the course of the opera, she is seduced by a clever prince (James Brown)--the title character--who has challenged her to a debate. The prince sneaks into Vidya's bedroom with the help of his former nursemaid and wins her heart with his good looks, clever poetry, and persistence in wooing her. Through arguing with him, Vidya learns the “true meaning” of love, and sets aside her previously insatiable appetite for knowledge. In the public debate the next day the prince—now disguised again as an ascetic—uses Vidya's own words against her to run the debate to his favor. Vidya, realizing it is the handsome man from the night before cedes the debate immediately. It is surprising to say the least, to encounter a work created in the United States in the late twentieth century that does not at all consider the gender politics of the story told. Vidya’s story, while not the most egregiously patriarchal tale ever told, could certainly have been treated with some irony. One character who comes close to redeeming the plot with her playful treatment of and reaction to gender stereotypes is Hira, played by Manami Hattori. The redemptive quality of Hira’s character is due in part to the excellent execution of the role by Hattori. A lesser actress would not have achieved such subtle facial expressions or dead-on timing.

Overall, the student cast performed admirably, though at times they were over-powered by the orchestra. The imbalance may have been more the fault of the recording equipment than lack of ability to project; Act I was affected by irritating background noises—some from the audience, some from the fountain on stage, and others that were unidentifiable on first hearing. In Acts II and III, these noises receded considerably.

Another somewhat troubling element of the film production was the prominence of “sub” titles, which actually appear all over the screen, not just below the action. Feldman explained that for him, once the decision was made to include titles, they became a part of the performance, not just something that one pretends not to look at. While I found the title obtrusive at times, I commend his use of color-coded text for the different characters’ utterances, and also for the careful timing of the appearance of the texts. I admit, I am a little old-fashioned and I prefer my subtitles tiny and always in the same place on the screen.

The Thief of Love DVD accomplished what its creators set out to do: it makes accessible an entertaining work that would otherwise be unavailable. The Thief of Love is available for purchase through the filmmaker’s site and you can also find it through Amazon.com.

Megan Jenkins

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