By Ashley Emrick, special to the Sybaritic Singer
Douglas J Cuomo’s opera based on John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt tells the story of a Catholic priest, Father Flynn, and the accusations of impropriety levied against him by the principal of the parish school, Sister Aloysius. The opera takes place entirely within the confines of the church and parish school. The Minnesota Opera production, a company commission, was premiered in January 2013. It is now available for free, on-demand streaming at PBS.org as part of their Great Performances series.
The opera was often uneven, dragging along in some scenes and moving too quickly in other moments. I would have gladly sacrificed part of the five minute scene about tea to have just a little longer with Sister James’ discovery of Donald’s undershirt in the locker, which moved so quickly that I only knew what happened because I’ve seen the movie and read the play. The orchestral writing very well captured the tension of the scenes, but often the vocal writing was sluggish and slowed the action in the scenes. It seemed that Cuomo had a place in mind when writing the vocal lines, but they didn’t always quite make it.
Zabala gives a deeply vulnerable performance
Thankfully, the singers turned in admirable performances all around. Matthew Worth made a fine Father Flynn, bring warm sincerity to the role only to suddenly change directions in the end of the opera, leaving you wondering what the real truth of his actions were. Christine Brewer as Sister Aloysius was intimidating and harsh, not inviting any sympathy or support from the audience until her stony facade crumbled with her admission of doubts. Two bright spots in the opera were Adriana Zabala as Sister James and Denyce Graves as Mrs. Miller. Their characters seemed to be the most well-rounded and brought the desperately needed element of humanity.
Christine Brewer and Adriana Zabala. Photo by Michal Daniel
Zabala is what one would hope a nun would be: faithful, compassionate, and hopeful about man’s capacity for goodness. Often the mediator between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, Zabala put Sister James’ heart on her sleeve and gave us the most vulnerable performance of the opera. Denyce Graves was a powerhouse, though she was only in the opera for a single scene. Desperation for her boy to graduate from the parish school, understanding of her boy’s “nature”, and justification of what Father Flynn could be doing to her son gave Denyce Graves a wide road for the journey she took us on during the scene. Her powerful voice traversed the emotions with ease and expressed what parents are willing to justify when they have no other option.
Left with our doubts
Something I wish that had been further explored was the motivation behind Sister Aloysius’ vendetta against the Father. With no real evidence to support her claims, we have to wonder what it is that causes her to drive Father Flynn out of the church and school. Sister Aloysius and the Father often disagree in the opera and it’s clear their philosophies on the church and their place among society differ greatly. She proclaims that men run everything and women are powerless, which suggests she feels her authority is being threatened, but offers only the inadequate explanation of “experience” when questioned about her motives by Sister James. We are left to wonder if she really had grounds for her suspicions or if she created them to oust the man threatening her preferred existence? Perhaps we are intended to leave the opera feeling our own doubts, just as Sister Aloysius confesses to having doubts in the opera’s final moment.
I definitely felt unsettled at the close of the opera. As humans, we want to know the answers to questions we are faced with, but Doubt does not provide those answers. There is no easy black or white answer, no clear cut decision, which is often the case in real life. It is ambiguous and up to each audience member’s interpretation as whether the Father did or he didn’t, but rather we are left to walk back into the world with our doubts.
The production of Doubt is available to stream on PBS until June 22.
Ashley Emrick has studied acting and theatre performance at the University of South Florida and also studies classical voice. She loves anything to do with theatre, musicals, and operas, and has the motto of “Will travel for sopranos.” She is often found tweeting niche jokes or working as a photographer.