My only hope is that Oates, coming back to the novel after five years, now realizes that Kopechne/Kelly's death was not tragic at all but simply pointless.
Young Kelly Kelleher (Karen Burlingame), who has written her honors thesis at Brown ("Jeffersonian Idealism and New Deal Pragmatism: American Liberalism in Crisis") on a prominent Massachusetts senator and scion of a famous political family (Patrick Mason), has the chance to meet him at her friend's father's beach house on a resort island off the New England coast on the Fourth of July. She tells him that she writes for The Nation and works as a crisis center administrator. He offers her a job in Washington working on his presidential primary campaign. While he does so he strokes her arm, observing that she has goosebumps. The word "goosebumps" makes her laugh. He kisses her hand.
This is one of the rare moments of potential drama, wit and absurdity in Black Water, John Duffy's new opera, to a libretto adapted by Joyce Carol Oates from her 1992 novel, currently receiving its world premiere at the American Music Theater Festival. The comic incongruity -- an operatic convention, the love duet, filled with references to The Nation, primary campaigns and "Liberalism in Crisis" -- is simply delicious.
Would that the rest of Duffy's opera were. The story, of course, is a retelling of the 1969 accident in which Teddy Kennedy drove off the Chappaquiddick bridge on Martha's Vineyard, drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. The novel (I'm told) tells the story largely in first person from the point of view of the drowning woman. The opera, in an effort to retain this p.o.v., begins and ends with Kelly underwater; but what happens in between is told as a straightforward narrative, and none of it is as interesting or as funny as the seduction scene. We all know the story too well, and, without the point of view or the narrative voice of the novel, there's little the opera has to tell us, musically or dramatically, about the characters or the events.
Rich men and women in madras and floral-print shorts in the latest citrus colors drink Samuel Adams and do lines of coke, give each other advice about who to hit on and who's being hit on, compare how men and women play tennis, and philosophize ("it's the death of love if a man is made to doubt his masculinity"). Meanwhile the images of Kennedy and Kopechne play in our head; it's like a bad Based-on-a-True-Story TV movie set to music.
Nor are the framing scenes, with Kelly underwater, as compelling as they might be. Standing in a steel-framed cylinder (something of a scenic mixed metaphor by set designer Douglas Stein), Kelly imagines that the senator is returning to rescue her, cries out to the off-stage voices of her mommy and daddy, and listens to the full ensemble, dressed in black, declaring that "You're an American girl," and that this is an American Tragedy. But much more could be done with Kelly in the water at the point of death, even to the point of setting the whole opera there. If you don't think so, you only need remember Adam Guettel's wonderful Floyd Collins (which received its world premiere at AMTF a few seasons ago), which demonstrated that great music-theater could be made from a trapped and immobile central character facing death over the course of a two-hour play.
The Kopechne story may very well be the Great American Tragedy, especially as told from her point of view. And Oates' libretto (filled with wonderful images of sea-green eyes, love, hope, politics and black water) keeps telling us, from its first words, that this is an American Tragedy. But it tells us little about what this American Tragedy is, what makes it singularly American, or what makes it tragic.
My only hope is that Oates, coming back to the novel after five years, changed her mind, and now realizes that Kopechne/Kelly's death is an American Tragedy only because people say that it is: that the real tragedy is, ironically, that it is all little more than a tawdry made-for-TV movie, that Kopechne/Kelly's death was not tragic at all but simply pointless.
But if that is Oates' point of view, she evidently neglected to let either Duffy or director Gordon Edelstein in on the irony.
-- Cary M. Mazer