New Opera Reimagines “Howards End”

by Jean Schiffman

Librettist Claudia Stevens and composer Allen Shearer turn “Howard’s End” into an opera set in mid-20th century Boston.

When librettist Claudia Stevens and composer Allen Shearer were looking for literature to adapt to opera, British author E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howards End”—with its memorable maxim, “Only connect”—came to mind.

It’s essential to feel personally connected to the material, says Stevens; the partners’ most recent full-length opera, a nationally recognized 2015 premiere, was based on one of her favorite classics, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” She loved the two main characters in “Howards End”: the lively and progressive-minded Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, beautifully played, in the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film, by Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively. “I love the idea of the attempt to do good that backfires,” Stevens explains, “the idealism that gets turned on its head.”

            In the novel, the plot unfolds as the comfortably well-off Schlegel sisters encounter, at a Beethoven concert/lecture, Leonard Bast, a lower-middle-class man who aspires to art and culture. The good-hearted sisters are amused and rather taken by him and endeavor to help him in ways that eventually lead to his downfall. Also in the mix are their new neighbors, the wealthy Wilcoxes, owners of a country house called Howards End, once the family’s refuge and now shuttered and empty. When Margaret befriends sickly Mrs. Wilcox, and when Mrs. Wilcox dies, the relationship between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes changes, most dramatically between Margaret
and the widower Henry Wilcox.

            Stevens immediately perceived a dramatic arc and saw how she and Shearer could enhance the story’s meaning: They’d take this very Edwardian tale of social class disparity and adapt it so that
a modern American audience could most fully relate to the characters. She transplanted the tale to 1950s Boston; Leonard Bast and his wife, faded jazz vocalist Jacky, became African-American. “I wanted to give it an American voice,” she says, “introduce American idioms.” To make sure that the language of the two black characters was authentic, she asked the singers playing Leonard (tenor Michael Dailey) and Jacky (mezzo-soprano Lori Willis) to vet the lyrics. Thus “Howards End” became “Howards End, America,” a three-act chamber opera with seven principals (including sopranos Nikki Einfeld and Sara Duchovnay as the sisters, as well as mezzo-soprano Erin Neff, bass-baritone Philip Skinner and baritone Daniel Cilli) plus a small chorus.

            “So it’s not England, but it’s New England,” says Stevens, in the living room of the Craftsman cottage in Berkeley that she and her husband and longtime creative partner, Shearer, share. Boston, they agree, is an appropriate milieu for the free-spirited Schlegel sisters. And the titular ancestral home, Howards End, remains a symbol with different significance for different characters, as Forster intended. “New England is a place where a house can really stand for a dynasty,” points out Shearer.

            Stevens, a pianist and experimental performer who creates her own solo dramatic/musical work, and singer/composer Shearer, a multi-award-winner known for vocal music and opera, have been collaborating on operas for more than a decade and are active in the new-music community; Shearer’s work has been seen worldwide.  continued on page 6

            For the partners, the words come before the music. “The rhythm and timing have to obey what I’m given on the page,” says Shearer. “Then I have an idea soon after that about how the instruments are going to support that. Of course, the libretto goes much faster than composing the music. It takes a long time to create an orchestral score, at least for me.” Adds Stevens, “The music has to drive forward always, taking you to some new place, and that’s a huge job for the composer because there are so many moving parts.” Agrees Shearer: “To get the pacing right is very difficult.”

            In this case, the score—which includes Beethoven (the Ninth Symphony and other pieces) as well as jazz (Gershwin, Fats Waller and others)—was written to be played by San Francisco new-music ensemble, Earplay; the orchestra—violin, saxophone, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, cello, piccolo, viola and piano—is conducted by Mary Chun. This is Earplay’s first venture into opera; the 35-year-old company is known for experimental chamber music.

            Director/set designer Philip Lowery points out that the opera’s structure is cinematic, inspired not only by Forster’s novel but also by the Merchant-Ivory version; it’s a design challenge, he says, to create simultaneous action, quick cuts back and forth, dissolves and cross-fades. But that wasn’t what stopped him in his tracks when he first read the libretto. With class issues in England translating into race issues in America, he says, the scenario conjures uncomfortable topics. “We don’t want it to seem trite or appropriative,” he explains. That meant finding ways, in tweaking the libretto, to allow audiences to make their own connections to our history of racial tension. 

            In addition to changes in time, place and ethnicity, Shearer and Stevens cut a few characters, turned Helen into a shutterbug who gradually moves from art photography to documenting social issues, and enhanced the character of Leonard, seen as a loser in the novel, but fleshed out in the opera as a would-be poet with society’s odds stacked against him.

            How does a librettist balance the inherent melodrama of opera—in which subtext tends to be spelled out in arias—with, in this case, Forster’s subtle tone? “You don’t worry, and you get the tone!” says Stevens emphatically. She points to the phrase “panic and emptiness,” spoken by Helen in the novel as she rails against the privileged rich, who have no inner resources when their self-made walls crumble; in the opera, the phrase becomes a leitmotif, used by three different characters. And the famous line “Only connect” shows up in two arias. “We use it in different ways, it’s strewn about, like ‘panic and emptiness,’” says Stevens. Comments Lowery, “A libretto has to crystallize ideas, because it takes so much longer to sing anything than to say it. A good librettist like Claudia can pare away and pare away to a moment of thought, a single moment. Song stops time and allows you to just dwell.”

            Says Stevens, “Forster was crying out for people, for society and individuals, to understand the need for love, and I think that’s the tone if you really dig deep.

            “It ends in an exhilarating, hopeful way, which is important to me,” she adds. “Not a Hollywood ending but a feeling of perhaps—not hope, but courage.”

            “Just going on,” offers Shearer.

            “Going on,” she agrees.


Feb. 22 → 24

Earplay with RealOpera

Z Space, 450 Florida St.,
San Francisco