BWW Opera Review: A WIFE for All Seasons from City Opera at Harlem Stage

BWW Opera Review: A WIFE for All Seasons from City Opera at Harlem Stage
Elisa Quagliata as Jo/Hedda. Photo: Sarah Shatz

An absurdist mash-up of the lives of great Ashcan artist Edward Hopper and the infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, HOPPER'S WIFE--by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie--had its belated New York premiere last weekend by New York City Opera, in a clever production by Andreas Mitisek.

Wallace's soaring, often energetic score tingles with excitement, following closely the changes in each of the characters' outlooks. It combines a modern, Americana sound for Hopper, more jarring notes for Mrs. (Jo) Hopper and a style that morphs from stridently modern to bluegrass, from jazzy to torch songs for the totally fictional Ava, as she changes persona from artist's model to movie star. The New York City Opera Orchestra gave an lively performance of the eclectic score, conducted by James Lowe.

In life, Edward and Jo Hopper were married over 40 years; both were painters, though she is known mainly as his muse. It wasn't a successful marriage by all accounts, unless you count Hopper's significant output while they were together. Reputedly, he was unhappy with her as a wife and she felt marginalized on many fronts, from a lack of recognition as a painter to their isolated life outside a big city.

BWW Opera Review: A WIFE for All Seasons from City Opera at Harlem Stage
Left to right: Melanie Long as Ava,
Justin Ryan as Edward Hopper,
Elisa Quagliata as Jo/Hedda. Photo: Sarah Shatz

The writers have turned Jo into a modern woman, who balks at Hopper's treatment of her and decides to leave and reinvent herself. She heads West to Hollywood with Ava, the young woman who had replaced her as nude model for Hopper; while Ava (Gardner?) becomes established as a film star, Jo can't even get a job painting sets. Her fortunes start to change when she hears Ava chattering about the sleazy doings of stars like Clark Gable and, voila!, Hedda Hopper is born--the "gossip-mongering scourge" who set herself up as a keeper of public morality.

In the program notes, librettist Korie talks about the development of the storyline, but it's easy enough to think of the two writers sitting at a bar, after a couple of rounds, writing on a cocktail napkin, "Edward Hopper? Hedda Hopper?" It's a wild concept that manages to incorporate three outrageously fictional scenes: the suicide of Hopper (a la Norman Maine in "A Star is Born"), the murder of Ava by Jo/Hedda, and the epic burning of Hopper works by Jo/Hedda (a la Manderley at the end of Hitchcock's "Rebecca") who feels that works showing her "posed like a two-bit stripper" would damage her moral standing. Fittingly, the 90-minute chamber work closes with an end card ("The End") that evokes Looney Tunes.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.