"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" sings a song all its own, with native son Kurt Vonnegut straddling the here and the hereafter

Something I heard Kurt Vonnegut say long ago on a literary visit to the University of Michigan has stuck with me. I'll have to paraphrase it: He was recalling time he spent at the Iowa Writers Workshop. At the social gatherings at the end of each day, he noticed a difference in gregariousness between the poets and the novelists.

The poets were chattering merrily away, while the toilers in the vineyards of prose fiction drew apart individually, musing and fretting. "The novelists were trying to figure out where the next chapter was going," Vonnegut said, while the poets were happy putting the day's work aside. "Poets — crazy people," he added with a slightly disdainful twinkle.

Harold Ryan works to impress his future wife Penelope, in her carhop phase.
I've sometimes wondered what the playwrights were like, if there were any in attendance at those parties. My guess is that they would be somewhere in between the poets and the novelists — making small talk while trying out different voices in their heads, then retreating into themselves wondering at how to give life upon the stage to what they had just heard themselves saying.  Playwrights must be like Dr. Frankenstein trying to juice a labful of monsters into life, the novelists like the scientist designing an experiment or expatiating a theory. And the poets? Knocking off a few more Boris Karloff bobblehead dolls, Vonnegut might say.

Vonnegut clearly preferred to be Frankenstein at the chalkboard or the desk. As  playwright in "Happy Birthday Wanda June," he seems not to have been able to choose between giving his characters independent lives and making sure each was an aspect of Vonnegut/Frankenstein himself. That was evident in last week's professional/student reading of the play at the Schrott Center for the Arts.

Antagonists to the end, Harold Ryan and Dr. Woodley move toward a deadly climax.
How fortunate that, posthumously, "Happy Birthday Wanda June," the season-opening production of Indianapolis Opera, has been given coherence and lyrical heft by Richard Auldon Clark, a friend of the writer who responded to Vonnegut's instinctive sense that the play deserved to be an opera. At the opera's premiere Friday night, also at Schrott Center, the bloom emerged from the tight bud of Vonnegut obsessions: war, machismo, hypocrisy, lifestyles with blinders on, illusions of both secular and sacred provenance. And of course, death — on a seesaw with horror at one end, relief on the other.

Play and opera, closely linked despite the latter's shrewd trimming of the former, have to do with the return home of war hero and adventurer Harold Ryan to his big-city American home, only to find his wife beset by a couple of opposite-pole suitors: a vacuum-cleaner salesman afflicted with hero worship and a sentimental pacifist doctor, the Ryans' family physician. Ryan has returned from exotic climes and challenges with an old pal, Col. "Looseleaf" Harper, a bundle of nerves and regrets stemming from his having dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

Clark's score is a judiciously balanced amalgam of irony and passion. He is alert to Vonnegut's saving grace of humor. A perky, borderline banal tune for clarinet and other reeds keeps recurring. Snatches of march (possibly including some quotations, but none which I could identify) keep coming to the fore in various guises. Smirking tributes to Harold Ryan's values abound. There are also cannily distributed glissandos in passages where uncanny and startling elements emerge.

The most useful contribution of the operatic genre to what Vonnegut wrote is to make certain set-pieces full of attitude come alive as the utterances of real people. This adds to the emotional impact of, for instance, Penelope Ryan's assertion of her dignity as she notifies her long-absent husband of her transformation, as well as to Looseleaf's aria of remorse for his role in bringing World War II to an end in an act of state-sponsored terrorism that it's still controversial to acknowledge. There's also a spectral glow in the string writing for the monologue for Ryan's deceased third wife separating the second and third acts. The harmonic language is wry, the phrases often laconic and abupt, in ways that parallel Vonnegut's prose.

With the insights of stage director Eric Einhorn to enhance such features, the premiere performance made the characters much more than representations of aspects of American life circa 1970. A less capable cast under less sure-handed direction might have rendered the long final act tedious, with family tensions and the threat of violence a little too overbearing. But again, the heavy pall of cruelty and retribution is part of the heritage of opera, we need to remind ourselves, and Vonnegut's insight into his play's operatic potential is worth honoring.
Clark's score has conferred that honor successfully.

Matthew Kraemer conducted the capable cast and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra with well-coordinated flair. Attention to detail, sometimes mind-boggling in the orchestration, was acute throughout.

Wanda June (Stephanie Feigenbaum) exults in her heavenly afterlife.
The cast knew what they had to do, and seemed fully invested in the show both dramatically and vocally. Jake Gardner maintained stunning bravado with the right hints of vulnerability as Harold Ryan. Hanna Brammer aroused our sympathy as the self-possessed but understandably distracted Penelope. When she declares at the end of Act 1 that no one here is of any earthly use to anyone else tonight (I'm paraphrasing again) to the sound of chimes, I was moved in a way I doubt would have been possible in a spoken presentation of the play.

Branch Fields lent his basso to a credible impersonation of a man undone by the fragmentation of American life in 1970 and memories of what he did in the summer of 1945. Brett Sprague gave nuance and glorious tenor vocalism to the role of the hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle, and John Cudia evolved from overgrown flower child to an upstanding, if doomed, hero as the other suitor, Norbert Woodley.  Kristin Gornstein made a charming, poignant impact in the pants role of Paul, the Ryans' vexed teen-age son.

A crucial aspect of the action comes from the world beyond, a heaven that clearly was also beyond Vonnegut's capacity for belief. His well-known religious skepticism has rendered for us a paradise populated by rollerskate-wearing, shuffleboard-playing deceased souls. It's a paradise of bland pleasures flecked with the occasional harmless disaster, such as the tornado that the third Mrs. Ryan (given a fine tipsy lilt by Jill Gardner) tells us about.

With Stuart Duke's inspired lighting design to help, we also meet on heavenly terrain the title character, a 10-year-old girl who was run down by an ice-cream truck on her birthday (lent a lively juvenile cuteness, complete with lisp and squinchy, pop-eyed expressions, by Stephanie Feigenbaum) and baritone Galen Bower as the vigorous Nazi war criminal Major Von Koenigswald, one of Ryan's more deserving victims. The careful, upright survival of this trio on roller skates is obviously hard to credit to anything in the normal training of an opera singer. Clearly, Vonnegut's heaven cheekily subscribes to the theology of Universalism: no soul is more damned or blessed than any other. Jesus Christ and Hitler alike are shuffleboard fanatics.

Finally, it's worth mentioning a set imaginatively representing the trophy clutter of the Ryans' apartment. Cameron Anderson had the great notion of suspending racks of antlers over the stage at various heights. They are both emblematic and menacing, especially when lowered at the very end. A large tiger hide hangs in the center over the living-room couch. Shakespeare was once disparaged by a rival as having "a tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide." The new opera reverses the insult with the plangent symbolism of the tiger's hide and the effusiveness of its player's heart — the authentic spirit of opera, larger than life and somewhat to one side of it, with fresh blood pumping through its arteries.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]


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