We recently realized it would be helpful to hear it out loud again. Plus, what can be more appropriate for Valentine's Day?
This is one more step in a project that's been a long time in the making...
I had been half-joking about adapting Justine for years, and had been feeling out composers for a while. A while back I ran into Silvia at a performance of a pretty unusual opera and made a crack about this ambition and I believe that she immediately was incredibly enthusiastic about the idea. I believe that that was the moment it went from a half-joke back-burner idea to an actual project. We discussed it and decided to collaborate on the libretto, and then seek out other necessary collaborators from there.
Adaptation is a tricky business. In some ways you have it easy because everything you need is in your source material. That said, it is important to select what stays, what goes, and what needs to change drastically in order for the new piece that you are creating to work. Novels and operas work on very different rules and we had to figure out how the core story would best make the transition. We agreed to re-read the novel (there are three versions and numerous translations, so it was interesting to see the differences in what we came back with) and then meet up and discuss structure.
Justine is a novel about a young woman who repeatedly does the right thing and gets punished for it in the worst possible ways. She has a sister, Juliette, who goes out in the world with a diametrically opposed worldview and succeeds beyond imagination. The novel is structured so as to display how each of the Seven Virtues is met with a poetic injustice. We decided for the sake of dramatic structure to highlight three of these episodes, and intersperse episodes with Juliette and have the Marquis himself as a character who both narrates and participates in the action. I am the lead writer on this project and we worked out a system where we wrote most of it in the same room, sometimes splitting up sections of who wrote what, sometimes writing passages together, and often editing and revising pieces that the other wrote (there is talk of a Jack the Ripper opera next, Silvia will take the lead on that one). The current libretto is pretty seamless. Unless you know one or the other of us really well, I'd say it's pretty difficult to figure out who wrote what.
Once we had a libretto written, we set out to put a reading together. We were very fortunate to be able to enlist David Gram, a director with a lot of experience with both opera and new work. I met David when he directed my play, The Godot Variations, for The Orfeo Group. At that point Silvia and I had just started talking about collaborating. I mentioned the project to David and he was intrigued.
Silvia is the co-artistic director of Fort Point Theatre Channel, which meant we had access to both space and a collection of artists. The first reading was an invite-only affair and included brief readings of erotic poetry. This then led to quite a bit of rewriting in preparation for a public reading.The public reading was a Valentine's Day fundraiser for FPTC that took place at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. David stayed on as director, and our core cast consisted of Ashley Korolewski as Justine, Carolyn Berliner as Juliette, Robert Murphy as the Marquis, Hugh Long as Father Raphael, and Kristina Riegle as De Bressac. Our poster was designed by Nick Thorkelson. We also added a few bits of staged violence to the performance (I took care of those).
We were actually had a bit of trepidation about what the audience response might be. The Marquis de Sade did in fact have sadism named for him, and his work reflects that. I would also argue that he was the intellectual predecessor to Nietzsche, and his commentary on morality is both terrifying and compelling. Our fears were unfounded. Our audience response was overwhelmingly positive.
So, here we are now getting ready for our next public reading. We''l be announcing our cast pretty soon. The reading will be taking place at 7PM on the 14th at 10 Channel Center Street (try and tell me that this is not a perfect Valentine's Day activity).
I am really excited to see this project moving forward. I don't know when I'll have more to report, but I suspect that I'll have a lot to say as this goes on.
I hope that you can join us for Valentine's Day.
EDIT: Check out The Marquis De Sade's JUSTINE's Facebook page!