Music department presents opera

The Washington University Opera, led by director Jolly Stewart, will present Dominick Argento’s “The Aspern Papers” at 8 p.m. March 20 and 21.

Written in 1987 and based on the Henry James novella published nearly a century earlier, the production is presented by the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences and will be performed in Edison Theatre.

Photo by David Kilper

Senior Caroline “Carli” Miller is the aging opera diva Juliana Bordereau in “The Aspern Papers.”

Set in 1835 and 1895 in a villa on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, “The Aspern Papers” centers on a biographer’s search for the score of an operatic masterpiece titled “Medea” — believed lost — that the composer Aspern had written 60 years earlier for his mistress Juliana Bordereau, the most noted opera singer of her day.

The scholar and biographer of the noted composer appears at the door of Juliana’s villa, which she shares with her spinster niece, Tina, to rent a room. The action alternates between 1895, when the lodger is attempting to discover whether a score of Aspern’s opera “Medea” exists, and 1835, which reveals a young Juliana and Aspern, a second relationship between Aspern and a soprano, Sonia, and details about the opera “Medea”.

When Juliana dies, Tina tells the lodger that she will part with the score only if he will marry her. He rejects her offer and packs his bags.

In the morning, as he grapples further with his obsession to see the papers, Tina puts an end to his desire by telling him she has burned the score. The events that follow bring to a close, in Jamesian fashion, the suspenseful drama that Argento so artfully created.

Argento’s opera had its world premiere in 1998 at the Dallas Opera, which commissioned the work. The production was featured in PBS’ “Great Performance Series” that same year.

James’ “The Aspern Papers” was first published in three parts in the March-May 1888 editions of The Atlantic Monthly and was published in book form in London and New York later in the same year.

The work was first adapted for the stage in 1962 by Michael Redgrave and successfully produced on Broadway. The play has been revived a number of times since the original production.

American composer Argento, who also wrote the libretto for “The Aspern Papers,” wrote 14 operas as well as major song cycles, orchestral works and many choral pieces.

Among his best-known operas are “Postcard from Morocco,” “Miss Havisham’s Fire” and “The Masque of Angels.” He also has achieved recognition for the song cycles “Six Elizabethan Songs” and “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” the latter earning him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975.

John Stewart, director of vocal activities in the Department of Music, will conduct the Washington University Opera performance, which also features the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Sets and lighting are by Patrick Huber. Teresa Doggett designed the costumes.

The leading role of Juliana will be sung by Caroline “Carli” Miller. Other cast members include Allyson Ditchey as Tina, Alan Naylor as the lodger and Joshua Stanton as Aspern. WUSTL students Tom Sitzler, Courtney Dey, Taylor Martin and Stephanie Ball also have roles in the production.

“The chorus, comprised of members of the Washington University Opera program as well as other voice students, does not appear onstage yet serves as a very important instrumental augmentation of the orchestra,” Jolly Stewart said. “The voices add wonderful texture and color to the atmosphere of this compelling psychological drama.”

Tickets are $18; $12 for seniors and Washington University faculty and staff; and $7 for students.

For more information or to order tickets, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 935-6543.