When he composed “Harvey Milk,” in the early 1990s, Stewart Wallace was adding to a series of much-discussed “biopic” operas based on recent history. “Satyagraha” by Philip Glass, about Gandhi; “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” by Anthony Davis; and John Adams’ “Nixon in China” were still fresh in people’s ears.
But in telling the story of the gay activist and politician who was killed in 1978 by another San Francisco board member, Wallace introduced a twist. Homosexuals, long a fervent segment of opera audiences, had rarely, if ever, been the subject of an opera.
When “Harvey Milk” premiered in Houston in 1995, Edward Rothstein’s review in The New York Times called it “an exuberant combination of banality and effective drama, posturing, playfulness, and polemic.” Before going to San Francisco the following year, Wallace and the librettist, Michael Korie, made some revisions, adding tunes for the main character, tweaking some orchestrations, and cutting it all down.
But the work remained sprawling – in its length and dozens of tiny characters. “It’s this monster piece,” Wallace said in a recent phone interview. “But we were young, ambitious and hungry, and we did what we wanted to do.”
Putting on a monster, however, is difficult. The work has barely been performed since its premiere over 25 years ago, but the opportunity for a re-audition motivated Wallace to undertake an even more drastic overhaul. His new version, designed for San Francisco company Opera Parallèle but delayed by the pandemic, will instead premiere at the Opera Theater in St. Louis on June 11.
“I literally started on a blank page from the first bar,” Wallace said in the interview. “So there’s not a single bar that’s the same, even though it’s definitely the same opera house.”
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How was this new version born?
A long time ago I called David Gockley [who commissioned the work at Houston Grand Opera and led San Francisco Opera from 2006-16] with my idea for visionary Italian director Romeo Castellucci to direct a revised edition of “Harvey Milk”. Just to see it from a completely different angle.
But David said if we wanted to do it soon, we should go to Opera Parallèle. And so I went to them, and we decided to do it. They called me and said, “What about all these little roles? Would you like to see them? I said sure, and the next day I called them and said, ‘They’re all gone.
It had the advantage of cleaning up the weeds and focusing on the narrative and the spirit of the play. When we wrote it, we were concerned that people wouldn’t know who Harvey Milk was – not much, anyway. So I considered it an obligation to educate, which can be a bit anti-art. So there are things in there that are no longer needed. We now have what we originally hoped for, which is a sort of mythical interpretation of his life and evolution as an activist.
Obviously, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film “Milk” exposed the story to a lot more people.
Gus actually came to “Harvey Milk” in San Francisco, and he borrowed some stuff from us, like “Tosca.” Which one was there because the night before Harvey Milk was murdered, he went to the opera house in San Francisco, and what was played? “Tosca”. It was a very literal thing. But we have made opera a place of pilgrimage and revelation for him. So that and a few other things that we did are in the movie.
What exactly has changed in the opera?
I started reviewing it with all those years of experience in between – not trying to make it more polished or sophisticated, just thinking about how to deploy resources and not waste time. I think the music length is now an hour and 50 minutes, and it was a nearly three hour night when we did it in the first run. At the San Francisco opera, there were something like 80 or 85 musicians, and at Saint-Louis, there will be about 66; and at Opera Parallèle, around 31. It can now be done by small or large companies.
The music is freer now, and more organic, and yet completely recognizable to what we’ve written. The bones are the same, but the meat is different; it’s leaner and smoother and more direct, with more rhythmic clarity. Nothing takes you away from the essential storytelling and music.
What I wanted to do was not rewrite it in terms of what I was going to do now; I wanted to realize what my intention was then. For example, when young Harvey goes to Central Park — he’s following this man he’s going to have sex with, and there’s sex all around him — the music was always driven by this very aggressive, pounding figure. Originally, I won’t say that I spread it, but I made it more elegant than it should have been, and also more complicated. And now it’s just this thing hammering at you, and it’s much more effective. So in a way it’s more raw now than I had the confidence to do it back then.
Was it rewarding to go back to something you did so long ago?
I had a brain injury in 2010. I was on a bike then woke up in an ambulance and had no idea how I got there. For about five years I couldn’t write music, which I had been doing since I was a kid. So it was devastating.
I tried a bunch of things to try to make it better, and the doctors were completely useless. I had to start these experiments on myself. So when we had the opportunity to redo “Harvey Milk,” and it was clear that I was going to rewrite the whole opera, I wasn’t sure I could do it.
When you write music, it’s like a bag of memories from when you wrote it; it’s like a diary, but it’s abstract. And I hoped that if I immersed myself in this piece – I was in my thirties then and I’m 62 this year – I would be able to find those memories that would fully revive my life as a composer. And the experiment worked. I was on fire. I think I’m doing the best job I’ve ever done. So it’s very important for me, this moment. It’s not just about reviving opera.