Harvey Milk

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Published: 9th February, 2015

St Kilda Town Hall made a particularly appropriate choice of venue for the presentation of excerpts from an opera about gay rights activist Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official. Musical Director Kathleen McGuire even had beside her a small replica of the smiling bronze bust that stands in San Francisco’s Town Hall. This is where Milk, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, fought to change repressive laws relating to homosexual activity. He was elected in 1977 and assassinated along with the mayor of the city, George Moscone, the following year.

The fact that Kathleen McGuire lived in San Francisco for 13 years and conducted the city’s 25th and 30th anniversary commemorations of Harvey Milk’s death provides an important personal link with the opera and its subject.

As part of Midsumma Festival the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus collaborated with Left Bauer Productions to present a semi-staged concert performance of excerpts from this 1995 bio-opera with music by Stewart Wallace and libretto by Michael Korie. The chosen excerpts from this substantial three-act opera focus on the middle and final sections of his life, depicting his relationship with his lover, supporters and enemies.

Both the story and the music are complex and it is to the great credit of the performers and the creative team that the work came together so well after a relatively short rehearsal period. With only a pianist and a percussionist to undertake the role of the orchestra it was an ambitious project. Fortunately, Toni Lalich is a gifted pianist with extensive experience as an accompanist and repetiteur. In the resonant acoustic of the St Kilda Town Hall her assured playing was imbued with warmth and depth while always maintaining clarity.

Kathleen McGuires’s conducting was similarly precise as she guided her principals and chorus through some very tricky passages of rhythmically demanding music that ranged from atonal to jazz influenced. Although there was the occasional uncertain moment, the chorus generally sang with conviction and a pleasing, full sound. Certain teething problems with the lighting, which was used to great effect for the most part, left them struggling to see their scores at times, but some members of the chorus did not use a score at all and many numbers had been memorized. The performance began with such a stirring chorus of “Out of the closet, into the street” that it was difficult to believe that this was the first time some of the singers had sung in an opera.

This was far from the case with the principals, all of whom are confident experienced performers in opera and/or musical theatre. Tod Strike made a strong impression as Harvey Milk and Nigel Huckle was a sympathetic character as his lover, Scott Smith. Their interchanges provided some of the more lyrical, sweeter moments as well as being a vehicle for more private expressions of frustration. Although Huckle has the vocal characteristics usually associated with musical theatre, Jacob Caine, Dimity Shepherd and Jerzy Kozlowski clearly come from an operatic background.

As Harvey Milk’s nemesis, ex-cop and ex-fireman Dan White, Jacob Caine gave a tension-charged performance. His commanding tenor rang with indignation as he challenged him for control over their shared Castro neighbourhood. The power struggle between White and the combined forces of Milk and Mayor Moscone, the latter sung with rich-hued resonance by Jerzy Kozlowski, provided very dramatic climaxes. (Milk and White: now there’s a strange convergence of names, especially under the circumstances!) Dimity Shepherd added further dramatic impetus as Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, with her customary vocal, musical and theatrical excellence.

Patrons expecting a concert performance would have been pleasantly surprised at the imaginative way Cameron Lukey directed the cast. Artful simplicity was the key. The principal singers sang from memory and acted out the selected scenes with just enough attention to detail to present the action convincingly. The Chorus wore black, while Milk and Smith began in Harvey Milk campaign tee-shirts and changed into more formal wear as repeated campaigns became more serious. Vote for Harvey Milk leaflets were handed out to the audience and hands were shaken after the election victory. The chorus waved rainbow coloured flags and umbrellas as part of the victory celebrations and later, after the fatal shots had rung out, circled the audience in a subdued vigil, holding candles.

Although Kathleen McGuire spoke about the opera before the performance, some of the story-line was difficult to follow at times. The singers’ diction was good, but operatic vocal production and music tend to defy ready comprehension. It is unclear whether the absence of a program is a policy of Left Bauer Productions (their recent splendid production of Master Class was also program-less), but a synopsis would have been helpful. The connection with Master Class raises another link: Maria Callas, the subject of Master Class. Harvey Milk was a big Callas fan and lover of opera. Apparently he attended a performance the night before he was assassinated. In fact, her image dominated the stage at several points for the Houston premiere of Harvey Milk.

There is no doubt that the quality of the music and the performance made this contribution to Midsumma Festival very worthwhile. The opera as a whole was controversial in its original artistic conception and form but appears to have been shaped into a work that deserves to be staged more frequently. Perhaps it is most appropriate that it has had its first Australian outing under the auspices of Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Chorus in a venue that is at the heart of a significant gay community.