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Postman Delivers Sex, Murder (and Arias)

Composer on challenge of putting noir crime story to music


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In the video above, learn more about the music of the opera. Video by Devin Hahn. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

When it premiered nearly three decades ago, The Postman Always Rings Twice was a daring, and to many, puzzling choice for an opera. Based on James M. Cain’s 1934 noir crime novel, the convoluted tale of murder and adultery, now a steadfast cult favorite, is being staged by the College of Fine Arts beginning tonight at the Boston University Theatre.

Even composer Stephen Paulus needed convincing when the idea of setting Cain’s potboiler to music was first pitched to him. Originally banned in Boston, the novel inspired two film versions, neither of which Paulus had seen. It was his tenacious librettist and collaborator Colin Graham who pitched the idea for a Postman opera to a skeptical Paulus, who was at BU in January to sit in on rehearsals for the production, a collaboration of CFA’s Schools of Music and Theatre and Opera Institute.

“I feel like I’m in really good hands,” said Paulus after hearing a sing-through at the Opera Institute, with two students rehearsing each of the major roles. Sung in English and conducted by William Lumpkin, Opera Institute music director and a CFA associate professor, the moody, erotically charged production showcases the talents of singers from the Opera Institute and the BU Chamber Orchestra. Sharon Daniels, Opera Institute director and a CFA associate professor, calls Postman a challenging work with contemporary dramatic impact, an opera that fits in with the institute’s mission to teach young singers “to act with honesty” and take risks.

Since Postman was commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 1982, Paulus has seen many productions of the work, from the subtly staged to the garishly graphic. “I think that the more left to the imagination is more interesting than giving people what they expect,” said the slender, soft-spoken St. Paul, Minn., resident. “I’m generally fairly hands off. I don’t want to interfere.”

He has been surprised and amused to see the range of people who have played the principals—the sultry waitress Cora, her clueless older husband, Nick, and Frank, the young drifter whose appearance at the couple’s roadside diner sets in motion a betrayal and a less-than-perfect murder scheme, culminating in fateful retribution. “You have the memory of Nick being a substantial person in St. Louis and the next Nick weighs 114 pounds,” Paulus said. The BU production has two alternating Nicks—one beefy, one slender.

Although Paulus has never seen Hollywood’s original 1946 Postman, which starred Lana Turner and John Garfield, he eventually did see the 1981 Jessica Lange–Jack Nicholson remake and “sort of heard the opera superimposed on the movie,” an experience he described as weird.

Relating how he came to write the opera, Paulus said that shortly after the 1979 premiere of his first opera, a one-act titled The Village Singer, the Cain novel was given to him by librettist Graham, who had staged seven Benjamin Britten operas. “We had a meeting in New York about what would come next after The Village Singer, and he handed me this silly little novella and said, ‘You can read it before the plane gets over Pennsylvania on the way back to Minnesota,’” said Paulus, his flattened vowels announcing his Midwestern roots. “I read it with an open mind, but there were lines like one when Frank says of Cora: ‘Her lips stood out in a way that made me want to mash them,’ and I thought, what do you do with that?” Graham “was crushed,” Paulus recalled, when he told him he didn’t think it would work. Graham persisted, making his case by writing a libretto, prompting Paulus to wonder, “Will we have to flood the orchestra pit for the car wreck?”

But Paulus was in. For him, the evolution of Postman, which became the first American opera presented at the Edinburgh International Festival, paralleled his growing confidence as a composer. He told students at one BU rehearsal, “If you haven’t fully developed your armadillo hide, you’ll need it.” The composer recalled a prominent person in the opera business asking, “How could you set such a stupid, tawdry tale as an opera?” Thick hide notwithstanding, the comment still stings, even for a prolific composer praised by The New Yorker as “…a bright, fluent inventor with a ready lyric gift.” His more than 200 works are in genres that include music for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, solo voice, keyboard, and opera, and his commissions come from such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

If you’re pursuing opera either as a composer or a performer, Paulus told students, you’d better get used to criticism from all sides, even audiences’ objections to, say, modern dress. “Some people object to the fact that the singers are wearing street clothes,” he said. “They say, ‘I paid $195 to see a guy wearing khakis?’” As for complaints about the opera being tawdry: “What kind of saves the story is, Cora and Frank aren’t two lowlifes; they actually do care about each other, and it comes out in the music. There’s a duet in the second act, and at that point, hopefully, your heart starts to melt.”

Along with artistic director Jim Petosa, director of the School of Theatre, Paulus will lead preshow discussions on February 24 and 25. Petosa describes Postman as “a brutal piece of theater” that is often described as an “explosive mixture of violence and eroticism.” Paulus has some fun on his website, which promises the BU production has: “Murder! Sex! Blackmail! An Alto Sax!”

The opera’s longevity is a continuing source of pride for Paulus, who believes strongly that for a composer there is no challenge greater or more creatively satisfying than opera. Aside from occasionally weak playing, especially with regional orchestras, “there isn’t much that can go wrong with an orchestral piece,” he said. “But with an opera, even if the music is wonderfully crafted, there’s still so much that can go wrong.” He likes to tell students that “the most gratification you’ll ever get from one of your works is an opera, providing all the other things line up—singers, set designers, stage managers, costume designers.” There’s so much emotion in opera, and when it all comes together, “it exponentially increases the power of the music.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice runs February 24, 25, and 26 at 7:30 p.m., and February 27 at 2 p.m., at the Boston University Theatre mainstage, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, and senior citizens; the BU community receives one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.


One Comment on Postman Delivers Sex, Murder (and Arias)

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 10:24 am

    When is BU going to get on the live streaming of productions like other prestigious colleges!? Surely copyright issues exist but for productions like the upcoming Romeo and Juliette there’s no reason to not provide the service!

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