Do Mothers And Children Make For Good Opera?

Carl Philip Levin as Gene and Ylva Kihlberg as the title character in 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival, July 2011. i i

Carl Philip Levin as Gene and Ylva Kihlberg as the title character in 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival, July 2011. Miklos Szabo/Lincoln Center hide caption

itoggle caption Miklos Szabo/Lincoln Center
Carl Philip Levin as Gene and Ylva Kihlberg as the title character in 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival, July 2011.

Carl Philip Levin as Gene and Ylva Kihlberg as the title character in 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival, July 2011.

Miklos Szabo/Lincoln Center

Where is the line between maternal self-sacrifice and suicide? That's one of the questions at the heart of Danish composer Poul Ruders' unremittingly bleak opera Selma Jezková. Based on Lars von Triers' film Dancer in the Dark, Selma had its first American performance Friday night as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, a year after its premiere with the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, with most of the original cast intact.

Using the outlines of Triers' script, Ruders and librettist Henrik Engelbrecht compact this tale of a struggling Czech immigrant in America into an opera of just five scenes and some 70 minutes. Going blind due to a congenital condition, Selma is scraping her pennies together to save enough money for a surgery for Gene, her preadolescent son, that will save him from the same fate. The only escape Selma has within her own mind: She loves big 1940's-style musicals, and imagining herself as a tapping and singing star is her sole outlet and source of happiness.

Fired from her dismal factory job and growing increasingly frantic, Selma is confronted by her wheedling landlord, Bill, who begs her for a loan. When that fails, he tries to rob her at gunpoint. In their struggle, he is shot in the leg, and begs Selma to finish him off. She eventually succumbs to his pleas, and in short order is tried and convicted of his murder. She goes to death row insisting that the $2056.10 she's saved up needs to go toward Gene's operation, not her own salvation.

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Von Triers' film, which stars Icelandic icon Björk in the title role, focuses on the stark dichotomy of Selma's fantastical interior life and her immediate physical world, from her grinding work at the factory to her time in prison and finally, at the gallows. We know that this morality tale hangs on Selma's desperate love for her young son, but we rarely see him onscreen.

In the film, Selma's son is going blind, and her effort to save his sight is what triggers an appalling domino of events, but the narrative feels artificial. It's just a series of plot points, a vehicle for von Trier and Björk (who also wrote songs for the film) to explore Selma's inner world.

By contrast, in Ruders and Engelbrecht's re-envisioning, Selma's motherhood is always front and center — and her child is literally never far away. As played by the wistful Carl Philip Levin, Gene is always onstage. He hovers just outside the circle of conversation, listening but not speaking, and — though equipped with enormous, owlish glasses to help with his own failing sight — not always seeing. (Lest you worry that Levin would be permanently scarred by his turn in such a bleak work, have no fear. The boy skipped off stage after the cast's first curtain call, and later waved gleefully at the audience, clearly thrilled to be a star in the Big Apple.)

The sole U.S. performance — and, as far as I'm aware, the last in the foreseeable future — didn't come off without a hitch. Selma's hanging scene was the source of some technical difficulties (during which the audience could hear a backstage Dane yelling out directions), and two stagehands were hospitalized following a mishap before curtain time. But there were some wondrous performances, including the bell-voiced Palle Knudsen as Bill and Gert Henning-Jensen as the cunning and sanctimonious district attorney who lands Selma on death row.

The audience is faced with a heroine of deep moral ambiguity. Is Selma making a deeply moral choice by not revealing that Bill tried to steal from her? Is she saving her son by letting the state take her life? Is her single-minded drive to grant her son a life that she herself can't have the best choice, even though Gene is now doomed to be motherless for the rest of his days?

A scene from 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival: July 2011.

A scene from 'Selma Jezkova' at the Lincoln Center Festival: July 2011. Miklos Szabo/Lincoln Center hide caption

itoggle caption Miklos Szabo/Lincoln Center

Maybe we're more open to melodrama within opera than we would be in film, but Ruders' and Engelbrecht's piece hinges on that conflict. Ruders' rich score drops in broad references to the Broadway musicals Selma is obsessed with (which Björk and von Triers take to amazing and ludicrous extremes in "Dancer in the Dark"), but he's at his best when he allows his artists to luxuriate in rich, strange harmonies and skitter across frayed knots of rhythm.

Parenthood isn't a topic explored nearly as thoroughly onstage — or in films or books, for that matter — as romantic love and heartbreak are. When it does come up, it's usually as a plot device.

In Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, an out-of-wedlock son unwittingly falls in love with his mother, while in Verdi's Il Trovatore, another case of mistaken identity between mothers and sons fuels the action. It's a similar story in Ponchielli's La Gioconda, in which the title's blind mother, La Cieca, is pivotal to the plot. In Mozart's The Magic Flute, Pamina is batted around between her mother, the Queen of the Night, and the father figure of Sarastro. And there's always the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Wagner's Ring cycle, but that push-and-pull is more about a daughter alternately wanting to please her beloved father and defying his wishes.

Even in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San's relationship with her child is more concerned with how she thinks Pinkerton, the child's absent father, will react to his birth than to her own maternal bonds. Another Puccini opera comes the closest: Suor Angelica, in which the cloistered title character is haunted by the memory of her illegitimate son from whom she has been separated, and who she learns has died. But we never meet the son; he is a ghostly, removed presence whose fate torments Angelica. We don't see mother and son together, as we do throughout Selma Jezková.

Tobias Picker's Emmeline also revolves around the shame of an illegitimate child, but the title character's predicament, at least in my memory of the opera, revolves more around her shame at failing social conventions than at her sorrow over a lost child. (Here again, mixed-up identities form a pivotal plot point: Emmeline winds up marrying her own son.)

The ultimate operatic mother may well be Bellini's Norma, but she nearly slays her children to gain revenge against her lover. This is hardly the stuff of maternal glory, even though she doesn't actually succumb to her madness. And well-intentioned fatherdom has tragic consquences in Verdi's Rigoletto, in which the title character's overprotectiveness leads directly to his daughter's death.

Selma has its faults. It's hard to retell a story whose first iteration is so fully fleshed out and immediately accessible on DVD, and as good as singer as Ylva Kihlberg is in the title role, she lacks full force as an actor. But it's the first opera I can think of that depicts a mother-child relationship directly and even tenderly, despite the mother's many harrowing human failings and struggles.

Is it just as the divisive writer Katie Roiphe mused a couple of years ago — that parenthood itself is just not that interesting? Is the domestic sphere of marriage, child-rearing and even divorce just too narrow, banal or self-regarding to make for good art? Or is it just that the "domestic" sphere has traditionally been the subject of less attention from mostly male creators?

But maybe we don't need an injection of melodrama, à la the morality tale on which Selma Jezková turns, to make the intense, all-consuming and life-changing journey of parenting an alluring topic. As Roiphe herself asked in her essay: "How often in a love affair can you literally find yourself in tears because you were away from a man for three hours?"

Is parenthood a ripe topic for opera? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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