Beautifully Discordant ‘Hart Crane’ Soars
If dramatic lives require grand art to do them justice, then the life of influential American poet Hart Crane deserves a grand staging. “Hart Crane” is an original opera about the life and work of the eponymous poet who sought to create a new, modern vernacular for American poetry. Both the score and the libretto were written by Matthew A. Aucoin ’12 and the show—directed by Devon H. Dunn ’12 and running at the Loeb Mainstage until April 27—follows the Hart Crane’s life as he struggles with his homosexuality and art in the wake of his parents’ lack of understanding. The hauntingly discordant music and a beautiful set help to situate the opera in its historical context while painting Crane as a larger than life figure.
Crane (Jason Connell) as a teen living at home, locked in conflict with his disapproving parents and about to run away to New York to fulfill his poetic destiny. As he struggles to make a living as an artist, he becomes inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge—one of the great marvels of 19th century engineering—and the site then functions as the centerpiece of his most famous poem “The Bridge.” The permanance of the Brooklyn Bridge stands in stark contrast to Crane’s unstable life.
Connell is especially adept at portraying Crane’s emotional sensitivity and turbulence through his grappling with homosexuality, creative disappointment, and unfulfilled love. For example, the end of the production, Connell is standing on his bed, emotionally wrecked over his lost-love and artistic failures. Connell’s body language portrays with aplomb the emotional transition between excitement for the possibilities of future poetry and despondency over Crane’s life’s inadequacies that this scene requires.
Even though scenes of emotional toil are prevalent throughout the show the show, there are times when the narrative, score, and staging work together] to deliver an optimistic beauty. A particular highlight is the duet between Crane and his lover, a Dutch sailor named Emil Opffer (James B. Danner ’12). Crane enters the scene looking for Opffer, accompanied by a dissonant section of music that mirrors his own anxieties. Upon meeting, the two begin singing, and the score resolves into a section of exquisite harmony. At this point the libretto consists of overlapping lines from Crane’s poetry. The two climb up the stairs, their embrace shown in profile against the Brooklyn Bridge—elevating their love to the same height and monumental permanence as the city around them.
The score of the opera is filled with dissonant chords that at times briefly resolve into sections of great harmony. The orchestra also functions as a mechanism for situating the opera in its historical timeframe, as it is sometimes called on to play sections of upbeat period jazz music. Under the direction of Aucoin himself the orchestra navigates these abrupt tonal shifts with ease. However, there are times when the volume of the instrumentation overpowers the libretto, with the vocals lost among the cacophony of the score.
The set design—impressive in its scale and economy—matches the grandeur and drama of the narrative. The opening scene takes place in Crane’s childhood home against a wall of rich yellows. The set changes in front of the audience, and nowhere is this more magnificent than in the transition from Act I to Act II, when this wall is lifted up to reveal the looming Brooklyn Bridge, the inspiration for Crane’s seminal epic poem. The size and grandiosity of this set provides a great backdrop for the outsized emotion of the narrative. This backdrop undergoes a few minor transformations with various platforms placed and removed in the foreground, but the city remains in the background of the characters’ lives throughout.
“Hart Crane” is an impressive offering from Aucoin. Through a score that uses discordant music to highlight the inner turmoil of its subject, the opera provides a look both at one of America’s most gifted artists and the time period in which he lived. Regardless of one’s pre-existing knowledge of the subject or familiarity with opera, ”Hart Crane” is a spellbinding work of art that casts a spotlight on the poetry of an important era of American history.