An Opera About Harvey Milk Finally Finds Itself

When he composed “Harvey Milk,” in the early 1990s, Stewart Wallace was adding to a string of much discussed “biopic” operas based on recent history. Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” about Gandhi; Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”; and John Adams’s “Nixon in China” were still fresh in people’s ears.

But in telling the story of the gay activist and politician who was killed in 1978 by a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Wallace introduced a twist. Gay men, long and fervent segment of opera’s audience, had rarely, if ever, been the subject of an opera.

When “Harvey Milk” premiered in Houston in 1995, Edward Rothstein’s review in The New York Times called it “a rambunctious combination of banality and effective drama, posturing, playfulness and polemics.” Before it went to San Francisco, the following year, Wallace and the librettist, Michael Korie, made some revisions, adding arias for the title character, adjusting some orchestrations, and paring down the whole thing.

But the work remained sprawling – in its length and its dozens of tiny characters. “It’s this monster piece,” Wallace said in a recent phone interview. “But we were young and ambitious and hungry, and we did what we wanted to do.”

Putting on a monster, however, is hard. The work has barely been performed in the more than 25 years since its premiere, but the opportunity for a fresh hearing motivated Wallace to make an even more drastic overhaul. His new version, conceived for the San Francisco company Opera Parallèle but delayed by the pandemic, will premiere instead at Opera Theater of St. Louis on June 11.

“I literally started on an empty page from bar one,” Wallace said in an interview. “So there’s not a single bar that’s the same, even though it’s definitely the same opera.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did this new version come about?

A long while ago, I called David Gockley [who commissioned the work at Houston Grand Opera and led San Francisco Opera from 2006-16] with my idea for the visionary Italian director Romeo Castellucci to direct a revised edition of “Harvey Milk.” Just to see it from a completely different angle.

But David said that if we wanted to do it soon, we should go to Opera Parallèle. And so I went to them, and we decided to do it. They called me and said: “What about all these smaller roles? Would you take a look at them? ” I said sure, and the next day I called them and said, “They’re all gone.”

It had the advantage of clearing out the weeds and focusing on the narrative and the spirit of the piece. When we wrote it, we were concerned that people didn’t know who Harvey Milk was – not many, anyway. So I considered it an obligation to educate, which can be a little anti-art. So there are things in there that are no longer necessary. We now have what we originally hoped for, which is a kind of mythic interpretation of his life and his evolution into an activist.

Obviously Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film “Milk” exposed the story to many more people.

Gus actually came to “Harvey Milk” in San Francisco, and he borrowed a few things from us, like “Tosca.” Which was in there because the night before Harvey Milk was murdered, he went to San Francisco Opera, and what was performed? “Tosca.” It was a very literal thing. But we turned the opera into a place of pilgrimage and revelation for him. So that and some other things we did are in the film.

What exactly has changed about the opera?

I started to look at it with all these years of experience in between – not trying to make it more refined or sophisticated, just thinking about how to deploy the resources, and not waste any time. I think the running time of the music is now an hour and 50 minutes, and it was an almost three-hour evening when we did it in the first run. At San Francisco Opera there were something like 80 or 85 players, and in St. Louis there will be about 66; and at Opera Parallèle, about 31. It can now be done by small or large companies.

The music is freer now, and more organic, and yet completely recognizable as what we wrote. The bones are the same, but the meat is different; it’s leaner and more fluid and more direct, with more rhythmic clarity. There’s nothing to take you away from the thrust of the narrative and the music.

What I wanted to do was not rewrite it from the vantage point of what I would do now; I wanted to fulfill what my intention was then. For example, when young Harvey goes to Central Park – he follows this man who he’s going to have sex with, and there’s sex going on all around him – the music was always driven by this very aggressive figure, pounding away. Originally, I won’t say I tarted it up, but I made it more elegant than it should have been, and also more complicated. And now it’s just this thing that hammers at you, and it’s much more effective. So in a way it’s rawer now than I had the confidence to do then.

Has it been fulfilling to return to something you did so long ago?

I had a traumatic brain injury in 2010. I was on a bike, and then I woke up in an ambulance and had no idea how I’d gotten there. For about five years I couldn’t write music, which is something I’d done since I was a child. So it was devastating.

I tried a bunch of things to try and ameliorate it, and the doctors were completely useless. I had to start these experiments on myself. So when we had the opportunity to do “Harvey Milk” again, and it was clear that I would actually rewrite the whole opera, I wasn’t sure I could do it.

When you write music it’s like a bag of memories of the time you wrote it; it’s like a diary, but it’s abstract. And I hoped that if I dug back into this piece – I was in my 30s then, and I’m turning 62 this year – I would be able to find those memories that would reignite my compositional life fully. And the experiment worked. I’ve been on fire. I think I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done. So it’s very important to me, this moment. It’s not just about reviving the opera.

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