The importance of being Oscar

Ken Howard

Just as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a landmark case potentially settling the question of marriage equality, Opera Philadelphia is reminding audiences of a time when homosexuality itself was the subject of a notorious trial. Making its east coast premiere, Theo Morrison’s “Oscar” recounts the trial and imprisonment of legendary writer Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency” in 1895.

“It’s a terribly deep and weighty subject and absolutely appropriate for what’s going on in the world now,” says Morrison, who co-wrote the libretto with opera director John Cox as well as composing the music. “With our own Supreme Court overturning DOMA and Prop 8, and Russia and Uganda passing draconian laws against homosexuality, it strikes me as a wonderful time for this to come out. In our own country we still have kids committing suicide because they’re being bullied or because their parents don’t support them, so the story of Oscar Wilde is very appropriate.”

Morrison composed “Oscar,” his first opera in three decades of writing music, with countertenor David Daniels in mind. The two initially met when Daniels was a student at the University of Michigan, where Morrison was on the School of Music faculty. Morrison wrote “Chamber Music,” a song cycle based on poems by James Joyce, for Daniels in 2004. Shortly after the premiere the two began discussing the idea for an opera with Cox, and the subject came into focus after Morrison pulled a Wilde biography from his bookshelf.

“I started flipping through the biography and was captivated by the life of Oscar Wilde as opposed to his accomplishments,” Morrison recalls. “I thought immediately that this would be a fantastic story for David Daniels. As an openly gay man, David was always playing characters like Caesar with Cleopatra, and that was an odd thing for him to feel as an artist on the stage.”

“Oscar” was co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and the Santa Fe Opera, which premiered the piece in 2013. Morrison has revised the opera for its East Coast premiere, shedding more light on Wilde’s biography before plunging into the famous wit’s farcical trial and tragic imprisonment.

“Many great artists have huge flaws,” Morrison concludes, “and the flaw of Oscar Wilde was that he was self-destructive. Not that his homosexuality was self-destructive – he was never ashamed of his love for men – but he made bad decisions that brought him to a terrible end.” – Shaun Brady

Opera Philadelphia: “Oscar”

Feb. 6-15

Academy of Music

$19 to $249

240 S. Broad St.


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