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Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is an epic two-part play by Tony Kushner (b. 1956), the American playwright and screenwriter. (His best known screenplays are Munich [2005, co-author] and the current Lincoln, both directed by Steven Spielberg.) Part I, Millennium Approaches, was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles as a workshop play in 1990. It had its official premiere in 1991 in San Francisco, and received its London premiere the following year. Part II, Perestroika, was developed in tandem, receiving its world premiere in 1992 at the Mark Taper Forum. Both parts were premiered on Broadway in 1993, six months apart, and then presented in repertory. Millennium Approaches received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as Drama Desk and Tony awards as best play; Perestroika won the same Drama Desk and Tony awards in 1994. In 2003 Kushner won an Emmy for his adaptation of Angels in America as an HBO mini-series.
The play also received numerous stagings in Europe, and when the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris gave Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös (b. 1944) carte blanche with a new opera commission in 2000, he immediately thought of Angels in America. “In this play, hallucination and reality merge perfectly. It is mainly this quality that has encouraged me to work with this subject,” the composer wrote before the premiere of his operatic treatment in Paris in 2004. “In the opera version, I put less emphasis on the political line than Kushner; I rather focus on the passionate relationships, on the highly dramatic suspense of the wonderful text, on the permanently uncertain state of the visions.”
The sheer length of Kushner’s monumental play was an obvious issue, and Eötvös met with the playwright early in 2000 to find a concept for an opera libretto. Eötvös estimates that the libretto, adapted by his wife, Mari Mezei, contains only about ten percent of the original text. As Eötvös loved the language of the play, the libretto was written in English, although it has since been translated to other languages. Eötvös and Mezei also kept the eight actors of the play, each of whom has multiple roles, blurring gender lines. (There are also three singers who sit in the orchestra, shadowing the principal vocal lines.)
The opera opens with a rush of klezmer-inflected clarinets and saxophones, introducing a Jewish funeral in New York City for Louis Ironson’s grandmother. Rabbi Chemelwitz uses Ukrainian modes and suggests Russian Jewish cantillation in his funeral oration, after which Louis and his boyfriend Prior Walter banter a bit before Prior reveals that he has AIDS. After Prior leaves, Louis talks with the Rabbi about his guilt over abandoning his grandmother and his fear that he will also abandon Prior.
Scene two is interwoven between Roy Cohn’s office, where Roy is meeting with Joseph Pitt, and the Pitt home, where Joe’s wife Harper is alone. The character of Roy Cohn is based on the historical lawyer who was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and one of the Justice Department’s prosecution team in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He is a closeted gay who also has AIDS, which he insists is liver cancer. Joe Pitt is a closeted Mormon gay and a Court of Appeals clerk. Harper is a neurotic housewife, whose Valium-induced hallucinations include in this scene a visit from Mr. Lies, a travel agent; she also introduces the idea of guardian angels circling the world.
The third scene is also cross-cut, as Harper’s hallucination and Prior’s dream intersect. Harper jokes about revelations, and Prior makes one, declaring that her husband Joe is gay.
Scene four is in Prior’s room, where Louis struggles with his thoughts of leaving Prior until he feels the fever in Prior, at which point he exits to call an ambulance. Prior protests that he does not want to go to the hospital, and he hears a mystic voice that presages the visitation of the Angel.
Scene five is Harper’s tormented confrontation with her husband, ending with her whispered question, “Are you a homo?”, which Joe denies. This concludes the first unit of the opera, of five musically connected scenes.
The next unit begins as Roy Cohn meets with Henry, his doctor. Henry begins describing AIDS with a musical reference to the spiritual “Nobody knows,” but Roy denies that he has AIDS and boasts of his importance and political connections (which he claims no homosexual could have), and brags about being the one to send Ethel Rosenberg to the chair. Ethel appears to Roy in a vision.
Scene seven is split between Prior’s hospital room, where Louis discusses Prior’s condition with the nurse Belize, and Central Park, where Joe is calling his mother Hannah at her home in Salt Lake City. Louis asks Belize to tell the sleeping Prior goodbye, and a drunken Joe comes out on the phone to his mother. Prior later wakes, calling for Louis. Prior tells Belize that he has been hearing a voice, which is keeping him alive. The voice returns, telling Prior to prepare to receive a prophetic message.
Joe and Louis meet in a chance encounter in Central Park in the eighth scene and they hook up. In Scene nine Hannah arrives from Salt Lake City and meets a homeless woman slurping soup, who brings up the prophecies of Nostradamus.
Scene ten is another split scene between two confrontations, Louis and Prior in Prior’s hospital room and Harper and Joe at their home. The scene leads directly into Prior’s nightmare, scene eleven, in which he is visited by ghosts of his previous lives in the 13th and 17th centuries, who herald the coming of the Angel, who finally appears, ending the scene and Part One of the opera.
Part Two begins in Prior’s bed room, with the Angel floating over his bed and declaring him an American prophet in music that continues from where it left off in Part One. The Angel reveals a sacred book to Prior, who has an ecstatic experience in more ways than one.
Scene thirteen is split three ways, between Louis and Joe in Louis’ apartment, Harper and Hannah in the Pitt’s apartment, and Prior and Belize in Prior’s bedroom. Scene fourteen is in Roy’s hospital room, where he argues with Belize, who is also nursing him. Ethel Rosenberg taunts him in a morphine-induced hallucination, but Roy tricks her into singing him a Yiddish lullaby.
The fifteenth scene is Prior’s dream, back in a hospital room with Belize and the voice of the Angel. The Angel appears, and wrestles with Prior, like Jacob wrestling an angel in the Bible; like Jacob, Prior prevails.
In the penultimate scene, six angels who are continental principalities sit around a table, listening to apocalyptic news from Earth on an old radio, despairing over the human condition and lamenting the absence of God. The Angel enters with Prior, who returns the sacred book, condemns God for abandoning humanity, and declares that he wants more life.
In scene seventeen, some years later, Prior is in Central Park before the statue of the Bethesda Fountain angel, with Louis, Belize, and Hannah. Together they relate the legend of the original fountain, about how any one suffering in body or spirit could walk through the waters and be healed of pain. It turns into a benediction, and the Angel appears, to bless them with more life. The orchestra ends with something very like the opening music, but recontextualized as a new beginning, not a circular closing.
Eötvös is a highly experienced theater composer, with sure dramatic instincts. (Angels in America was Eötvös’ sixth opera, and he has since composed three more. He has also written an enormous amount of music for Hungarian films.) In preparing to set an icon of contemporary American literature, he and his wife attended a number of musicals in New York, studying that quintessential American genre. His orchestra here is in many ways a big band with strings, including two guitars and Hammond organ, and his writing both for voices and instruments touches many popular and vernacular bases, but only as one layer of reference. (The score also calls for recorded sounds as sonic backdrops.) Eötvös treats most of the instruments soloistically, letting them extend and expand vocal lines. The results mirror the textual mix of hallucination and reality – music that clearly suggests specific times, places, and sentiments, but which is simultaneously capable of otherworldly transfiguration and abstraction.
- John Henken