The operatization of Kurt Vonnegut’s play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” has an odd and interesting effect: It humanizes a cartoon.
And in its world premiere via Indianapolis Opera Sept. 16-18 at the Schrott, it’s given the first-class production a new work needs to make clear both its pleasures and its problems.
Composed by Richard Auldon Clark with a devotion to the libretto that borders on supplication, the opera (in English with only occasionally necessary supertitles), sticks fairly closely to the original play—apart from its ending, which I will get to shortly.
As in the play, big game hunter/soldier Harold Ryan returns home after being missing in the jungle for eight years. It’s 1970 and the world is a bit different than the one he left eight years earlier. So is his family. His son is twelve, his wife, Penelope, is being courted by a pair of men very different from her husband, and there's a growing sense that might isn't always right.
In the play—and in the film version—Harold is rendered with one-note machismo. Multiple notes, courtesy of Clark, enrich the character. Yes, he’s an egomaniac without empathy, but there’s a sincerity bolstering his bluster. He actually believes his world-view. As played by Jake Gardner, he’s still frightening and misguided, but thanks to the needs of the music, he’s more difficult to easily dismiss. At least in the first act.
There’s a richness, too, to Penelope who, in Hanna Brammer’s lovely reading, manages to convince us of her growing strength without ever losing the awareness of the car hop girl at her core.
The music liberates not only the characters, but also the punch lines. Freed from steady punchlines expected of a traditional non-musical comedy, “Happy Birthday Wanda June” has more laughs than anyone should have the right to expect from an opera. And the Vonnegutian world view—particularly exemplified by the sympathetic bomber pilot Looseleaf Harper—comes through clearly and often beautifully.
Stage designer Cameron Anderson has done an effective job of theatricalizing the Ryan home—making room for Vonnegut’s side trips to a very inclusive heaven. She’s ably abetted but Stuart Duke’s lighting design and the costumes of Candida Nichols.
Vonnegut himself never quite found a satisfying second half for his play, having given it a couple of tries. And while it’s commendable that Clark would want to stick with what the author wrote, it doesn’t always serve the piece.
Like the play, the opera drags when Ryan begins to take action to try to restore his version of justice. And the ending—a clunker very different from the equally unsatisfying one in the play—makes clear that Vonnegut wrote himself into a corner that he couldn’t escape.
These final false notes hurt, but they don’t completely cloud the achievement here.
Besides, how many other operas offer such useful advice as “Never fight a guy when you’ve got on roller skates”?