“Say you come across someone in the street, a street person who tells you a story. Later, you hear them tell the same story to someone else, and you feel a little betrayed, like they’re on a loop.”
Peter Josheff talked about the opera he composed, with lyrics by poet Jaime Robles. “This has been going on for all eternity; it’s not the first time it happens.”
Josheff and Robles will see their opera, Inferno, Second Circle of Hell—The Lustful, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, premiered at Live Oak Theater next Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., and again on the following Sunday at 5, as part of San Francisco Cabaret Opera’s Weekends in Hell.
Inferno will feature Eliza O’Malley, soprano; Adam Flowers, tenor; Richard Mix, bass; and Eric Zivian, from Left Coast Ensemble, piano.
Josheff and Robles have been working together since the mid-1990s. Smaller projects premiered at the annual Harvest of Song series at the Berkeley Art Center.
“We always planned to do a large project,” Josheff said. “So we proceeded methodically with smaller ones. She came to me with the idea—and Jaime always comes to me with exactly what I’m looking for. I can always set her text easily.”
“I’d been looking for an opera to do for some time,” Robles said. “I was taking a writing course; they asked us to do some collaborative work. During that assignment I read the story of Francesca and Paolo [in Canto V of Dante’s poem]. Given its very theatrical and dramatic character, I thought it was suitable for opera, and that it would fit well with the kind of composing Peter’s good at: lyrical, sensual, a romantic quality about it. He might not like hearing that!”
“In the Second Circle, they can’t control their passions,” Josheff explained, “They’re blown by the wind from one passion to another. It was easy to compose music that tries to convey passion for each character. Paolo croons like a pop singer. He doesn’t know he’s in hell; he’s still trying to seduce Francesca. Francesca knows where she is; all she can ask is, What am I doing here? What crime did I commit? She looks at Paolo and can’t fall for it anymore. And the wind’s an actual character, a monster demon, kind of charming in a way. He torments the damned with good-natured, pitiless cruelty.”
“Most of those who approach the material deal with the story of Paolo and Francesca by telling her life, her love affair and death,” Robles said. “What really interested me more were the moral and ethical qualities of the story; what’s hell all about? Why did Dante, the quintessential love poet, write this story in which love is repaid by death? But I wanted to make the story more contemporary; I found articles where psychiatrists compare the medieval vision of hell with psychiatric states. I used fragments of medieval texts on melancholia in the libretto to set up the connection, to bridge the medieval to the contemporary, by portraying depression as a form of hell in life on this planet. And our ethical system is different. I came up with psychological disconnection and projection as their sin, their crime: Paolo totally absorbed in a fantasy of his own making, and Francesca realizing she’s just a projection of that, that nothing can be done about it. They suffer from the disease of narcissism.”
“I think there’s a lot of irony in this work,” Josheff said, “a sweetness in the music, with a lot going on underneath. The characters, especially Francesca, make their pitch to the audience, as if the audience is an embodiment of Dante and Virgil, knowing they’re in hell, yet drawn to the damned, affected by the torment, the suffering.”
“When I finished writing the first section,” Robles said, “I said to myself, ‘This is a downer!’ I didn’t want people to walk out of the theater feeling like they wanted to kill themselves. But Peter’s way of looking at it was more humorous. He has Paolo singing a kind of doo-wop love song. I tend to be a little abstract in writing, in my perceptions of life. And that’s what I like about opera. It’s public, stagey, theatrical, kind of an antidote to the private experience you create writing poetry, talking to a person reading a book.”
Josheff mentioned “the chorus of lost souls, the damned, dancers from Huckabay Dance Company, Jenny McAllister—a wonderful collaboration!—who provide commentary through movement across the stage, with a lot of sensuality. The damned are Hell’s Wind’s flock of sheep; there’s something pastoral about his attitude toward this suffering under his thumb. Francesca is passionate, spiky, rebelling against fate, and remains alone on stage for her final aria when everyone else drifts off with the damned.”
Josheff concluded, “This is the first part of the work; there’s going to be the Ninth Circle, with the sufferings of Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother—she was betrayed, seduced by proxy—in a lake of ice, a sense of contrast. But this is the culminating moment in Jaime’s and my collaboration. We worked hard to get here. And it opens the door to other large-scale works.”
INFERNO, SECOND CIRCLE OF HELL
8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, June 17 and 18; 5 p.m. Sunday, June 21 at Live Oak Theater. Part of San Francisco Cabaret Opera’s Weekends in Hell, which also features Zachary Watkins’ No Exit, from the play by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Old Man and the Thief, A Grotesque Opera in 14 Scenes.