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Years of Solitude

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The Sonoma City Opera's 'The Dreamers' is no lullaby

By Gretchen Giles

I THINK THAT HUMAN beings get very big when they're painted very real," says librettist Philip Littel by phone from his Los Angeles home. "The warts-and-all really does give [them] much more stature than the idealized father-of-our-country stuff.

"But that's a taste that probably not everybody shares."

He has a point. As the writer of The Dreamers, an original work commissioned for the Sonoma City Opera company's sesquicentennial celebration with $100,000 from the Cannard Fund of the General Vallejo Memorial Association, Littel has found plenty of people who don't share his taste. Not that that's stopping him.

With two years of research under their collective belts, Littel and composer David Conte have fashioned a highly accessible opera about the dreams of American--and most particularly, Californian--life, using as their springboard the dreams of one man, General Mariano G. Vallejo.

Set primarily on two hot August days in 1848--two years after the infamous Bear Flag Revolt that wrested control of the Sonoma Valley from the Mexican government, created the California republic, and led quickly in turn to its absorption by the United States--The Dreamers follows a plausible positing of Vallejo's feelings and demise while showing the town of that time. Warts and all.

"We open with a little scene outside of Vallejo's window with three outcasts," says Littel, whose libretto for Dangerous Liaisons with composer Conrad Sousa was premiered to great acclaim by the San Francisco Opera in 1994.

"One is a freed black man who is trying to make a living and trying to find a place to settle and has been making his way as a professional gambler. The second is a sort of Mexican no-goodnik who used to work for Vallejo and now lives off his wits, and the last is a drunken Indian woman who is making a living as a whore.

"Fine upstanding cast of characters," he laughs ironically. "But what I find is that this was absolutely normal for a barracks town."

BOTH PHILIP and I are transplanted Easterners . . . and this is our love letter to California," says David Conte leaning back in his chair. Meeting in the middle of a busy day at SCO's artistic director Antoinette Kuhry's Sonoma law offices, Conte is unhurried, glad to be discussing the project that has consumed the last year of his life. Conte, who holds a doctoral degree in musical arts from Cornell and who has been a professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for nine years, immersed himself in the early works of composer Stephen Foster, as well as minstrel, folk, gold rush, and Russian songs to prepare the score of The Dreamers.

"We wanted to write a work of Americana, and sometimes that does not seem fashionable. The themes somehow released some kind of energy in us to create this work about America, and it is unabashedly American using American themes," he says. "The contradictions that are in the American character, the way that Americans try to get away from each other and then miss each other when they're gone. The kind of ambivalence that white Americans have about black Americans, but how deeply they love black music," he emphasizes, citing the popular folk opera Porgy and Bess.

"That's one aspect of it. It's also the way that Americans have willed themselves to become a nation and a people because they had this vast space to fill. Boorstin [Historian Daniel Boorstin, whose work influenced both artists] talks a lot about how the idea of naming things is important."

Quoting from The Dreamers, Conte singsongs rapidly, "'Everybody wants, but Americans want more, and wanting more, they get more, and more--they get it by saying what they want.'

"This taps into a whole line of thinking," he exclaims. "You call things into being simply by saying what you want them to be."

LIKE HIS PARTNER, Philip Littel has been developing his own very definite sense of national motifs. "The themes of American life," he states, "are homesickness and restlessness, the particular rivalry and antagonism between the sexes, and the very vexing question of race. With Vallejo, it was very much wanting to be a big shot, and actually failing quite often.

"But I think that his great triumph is in projecting his personality over these 150 years, to the point where someone would want to commission an opera about him. As I read about him and found that the image of him as a great statesman crumbled, what actually took its place was the image of him as someone intensely sympathetic, someone very human, someone with a lot of faults and a lot of qualities. As a family man, as a personality, he really did take over the opera."

Sifting through an immense amount of research, Littel found the diaries of a man named James Eastin particularly useful in bringing the whole story together.

"They are the recollections of a man in his old age of what his life was like in California, and his chapters on Sonoma put a real light on," he remembers. "Because this was someone with no particular axe to grind, who told very illuminating stories. And the story that I found to be the most exciting and the most informative was the story about the trick that [the residents of Sonoma] played on General Vallejo.

"Basically, Vallejo was rather displaced by the American occupation but was allowed to live there, so he was sharing his house as a billet for troops. The company there were amateur theatrics buffs. They were kind of famous for it. And so they put on shows, and Vallejo liked to be treated as the leading citizen, so he had a special box made for himself at the makeshift theater. And Eastin tells us this heartbreaking story about a black man whom he knew vaguely, who came up to him and said, 'Do you think that they'd mind if I went in?' And [Eastin] said, 'I don't see why not; your money's as good as anybody's,' and he started to take him in, and they blocked his way.

"Now Eastin, being a humorous and good-natured man, decides that he's got a plan. So he whispers in everybody's ear and they all laugh and let the black guy in. And he sits him in Vallejo's box and they all wait to see what Vallejo will do. And Vallejo comes in in the middle of the show with his family, and he sees the man in his box and he realizes that, basically, his box has been turned into the colored section. And then Vallejo just lost it.

"That event was the first time I'd encountered Vallejo as a human," Littel says of the incident that became the pivotal point for his opera. "And so, working around that, I realized that I had a play that had some of the unities: it had a beginning, a middle, and an end."

DAVID CONTE also finds himself sympathetically drawn to the General. "I have to say that in setting the words, I just felt tremendous compassion for Vallejo. He wanted to be a community builder, he wanted to build cities, he wanted to build houses. He was something of a visionary, and he was very ordinary in many ways.

"But the fact is, here we are still talking about him and there's a city named after him, and you know . . . Was he a success? We don't try to say. The opera is not about making Vallejo into a hero, it's about showing him as a human being and as an American. And I know that this is the thing that the [Vallejo Memorial Association] objects to," he says, referring to the recent spate of controversy over the opera's less-than-ideal depiction of the man.

"But the contract didn't say 'Write an opera about Vallejo the hero,' and frankly, it probably would be a false work, and it would certainly be very narrow. And we didn't think that it would be much use to the [Sonoma City Opera]. We hope that this work will be performed all over, now that these characters from Sonoma have been immortalized in an opera, to tell this American story."

PHILIP LITTEL agrees. "This is a portrait, and it is a portrait of Sonoma," he says definitively. "And, you know, any portrait worth a damn is going to make the sitter uncomfortable for a while. The other thing--and this is where I get into lecture mode--is that if you have a trivial subject, you will have trivial music. My job as a librettist is to parse out a story and create words that will bring out the most from the composer.

"Operas," he sighs. "You can't populate an opera with nice, OK people. I'm afraid you populate it with mad kings. . . . And whores," he laughs, "are very good in opera.

"What opera is, is people at a large scale, and to create them at a large scale, you have to create them pretty whole, pretty big. And the sense that I have is that people are only big when they're known fully.

"In other words," he says honestly, "I would probably writhe in horror and embarrassment were someone to write an opera about me by my own rules, but I bet it would be an opera."


The Sonoma Opera Company presents a preview of The Dreamers with a section of the opera and appearances by Littel, Conte, and director Sandra Bernhard on Sunday, June 16, at 3 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center, Andrews Hall, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. $10. Performances of the complete work are slated for July 27-28 and Aug. 3-4 and 10-11 at the Sebastiani Theatre, on the Plaza. Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. For details, call 939-9036 or 1-800-SCO-4311.

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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