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<em>Wise Blood</em> as opera

(Chris Larson Studio)

Music

Wise Blood as opera

An enjoyable “immersive exhibition” of Flannery O’Connor’s novel

The great Catholic short-story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor is in the news again—and for the same reason that it seems she’s ever in the news anymore: racism.

O’Connor was no racist. But you’d never know if your only information source were The New Yorker, which recently published an essay by Paul Elie bearing the question-begging title “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” Feel free to skip to Jessica Hooten Wilson’s rebuttal in First Things and Justin Lee’s at Arc Digital for succinct explanations of why Elie’s thesis leaks like a sieve. 

Then, thus reassured of the purity of O’Connor’s intentions, log on to your favorite digital-music web store and grab the new original-cast recording of Wise Blood (New Focus), a one-hour-and-19-minute “immersive opera exhibition” by the composer Anthony Gatto and the artist Chris Larson based on O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name. (The opera is called an “immersive exhibition,” incidentally, because it’s staged so that the action surrounds the audience; a full-length video of a 2015 performance is available on YouTube.)

Wise Blood the novel follows the efforts of the disillusioned World War II veteran Hazel Motes to free himself of every last vestige of his intense, fundamentalist-Christian upbringing, convinced as he is that the gospel is nothing but a hoax meant to bamboozle the ignorant. Reality, however, in the form of a series of bizarre antagonists, keeps breaking in, and eventually Motes fails at his task while paradoxically (and reluctantly) attaining something of inestimably greater worth.

Wise Blood the opera transforms O’Connor’s story into a fever dream, blending subtly tormented music as performed by a brass-heavy orchestra and a smaller woodwinds-heavy ensemble with vocal performances that require as much in the way of effective spoken-line delivery (i.e., acting) as they do in the way of singing. It’s as if the principal performers (each of whom is magnificent) only burst into song when the passions warring within their blinkered souls become too much for mere speech.

Other characteristics of the work make it especially timely given the latest attempts to banish O’Connor into outer darkness. One is Gatto’s excising of the “N-word” from his libretto (it’s spoken or thought over a dozen times by the characters in O’Connor’s novel). Another is his casting of the African Americans Martin Bakari and Brian Major as Hazel Motes and the charlatan preacher Asa Hawks respectively. Whatever their flaws, race-based bigotry is evidently not among them.

Admittedly, such revisionism puts a crimp in the characters’ hubris and therefore makes Motes in particular a shade more likable than O’Connor intended him to be. But it also nudges him toward an Everyman status that places him and the story beyond the reach of the cancel-O’Connor mob.

Forty-one years ago, the director John Huston oversaw a painstakingly literal cinematic adaptation of Wise Blood, one that, despite strong performances from Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, came off flat. Gatto’s Wise Blood is the aesthetic antithesis of Huston’s in every way that matters.