Review of Harvey Milk at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

    This year’s final offering at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the premiere of a reimagined version of Harvey Milk, an opera on the life and death of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

    The original version of Harvey Milk premiered in 1995. The opera by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie was a three-act, three-hour work. The new, two-act performing edition is an hour shorter.

    Reducing the requirements for staging the opera will surely result more performances of a piece that deserves to be heard. It tells an iconic story in beautiful, gripping music.

    The opera opens with a scene portraying both the end of Milk’s life and the beginning of his journey. In his youth, his mother warns him to watch out for men who are different. In the 1940s, he meets such men at the Metropolitan Opera but does fully understand them. When he approaches one of them in a park after the performance, the stranger reveals himself as a policeman and puts the young man in handcuffs, both physically and emotionally.

    In his early adulthood, Milk works on Wall Street and lives in the closet. The catalyst for his coming out is his relationship with gay activist, Scott Smith. When Milk justifies keeping a low profile because of his job, Smith counters, “What have you got, Harvey Milquetoast, without the right to walk down the street and be who you are?” The Stonewall Uprising of 1969 confirms Milk’s commitment to both activism and Smith.

    After moving to San Francisco, Milk runs for city supervisor. Despite building a coalition that bring diverse groups onto the “Milk Train,” the self-styled “Mayor of Castro Street” loses the election. He cuts off his ponytail to widen his appeal in his 1977 run for supervisor, which succeeds.

    In the same election, Dan White also wins a supervisor’s seat after campaigning on values opposed to Milk’s. White cannot retain his job as a fireman while serving as a supervisor, and he resigns for financial as well as political reasons. After changing his mind about his resignation, White seeks another chance from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Milk successfully opposes the reappointment. White then assassinates both Moscone and Milk. The candlelight vigil for Milk makes it clear he has secured a place in history.

    Wallace’s brilliant score is never less than compelling. Two of the highlights are arias for the title character. In the first, he frees himself from emotional bondage by seeing a connection between standing up for himself as a Jew and standing up for himself as a man who loves men. In second, he regrets never having had the courage to tell the truth about himself to his mother. Both of Milk’s arias are deeply moving in Thomas Glass’s splendid portrayal.

    In the libretto, Dan White is not merely Milk’s assassin. A form of Dan White is Milk’s adversary throughout the opera. The splendid Alek Shrader’ s Dan White is a chilling but still human figure in this complex role.

    The excellent cast, in order of vocal appearance, includes:

    • Elizabeth Sarian as Harvey’s mother
    • Raquel Gonzalez as Dianne Feinstein and a sex worker
    • Mishael Eusebio as young Harvey
    • Nathaniel Sullivan as a man at the opera and closet lover Jack
    • Nathan Stark as George Moscone, Horst, and a teamster
    • Jonathan Johnson as Scott Smith
    • Xiao Xiao as Henrietta Wong
    • Mack Wolz as Anne Kronenberg
    • Kyle Sanchez Tingzon as the Messenger
    • Schyler Vargas as a buff young man
    • Steven Ricks as the first television reporter
    • Sydney Dardis as the second television reporter
    • Maria Consamus as third elevision reporter
    • Melissa Joseph as Ella Hill Hutch

    Allen Moyer’s scenic design, Greg Emetaz’s projections, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting work together to create a flexible acting space that is highly specific for each scene. The setting’s flexibility is fully exploited in Sean Curran and James Robinson’s purposeful direction and Curran’s enlivening choreography. James Schuette costumes and Tom Watson wigs and makeup encompass the full range of characters Milk encounters life in both New York and San Francisco.

    The production sounds wonderful thanks to the authoritative conducting by Carolyn Kuan, the gorgeous playing by the St. Louis Symphony, the beautiful singing by the soloists and by the chorus under Kevin J. Miller, the sound design by David Bullard, and the English diction coached by Erie Mills.

    Harvey Milk continues at 7:30 p.m. on June 15, 17, 19, and 23 and at 12:30 p.m. on June 25.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Eric Woolsey

    From left to right, Jonathan Johnson as Scott Smith, Nathan Stark as a teamster, Thomas Glass as Harvey Milk, Xiao Xiao as Henrietta Wong, and Mack Wolz as Anne Kronenberg in the new performing edition ofStewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk.