One Man's Sad Goal? Make Opera Positive

On Cape Cod, an impresario seeks rewrites of the world's great tragic operas. He wants to give them a happy ending for performances by his children's opera company. Some might call it a fool's errand.

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IF you found that last piece a little bleak, here's something to cheer you up. Cape Kids Opera, a small summer company producing children's operas in Eastham on Cape Cod, is getting a new name and undergoing a total makeover. That's because the company has recently acquired a very rich sponsor. Reporter Alice Furlaud has the story.

ALICE FURLAUD reporting:

Hamilton Banks is a first time impresario at he age of 75. A new resident of Wellfleet, he's long been an opera fan, and the huge fortune he acquired from enterprises ranging from software to real estate has inspired him to bring opera to the Cape. His kind of opera. I spoke to Mr. Banks in his massive new house overlooking Cape Cod Bay.

Mr. HAMILTON BANKS (Opera Impresario): I've been an opera fan all my life. And for a long time I've worried about the gloomy feeling a lot of these operas give you. An opera like Madame Butterfly. She kills herself, for God's sake, must have a very negative effect on the opera-goers. We're in troubled times and we don't need -- I've been a kind of disciple of the late, great Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking. I used to hear him preach at the Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue in New York. What a speaker. So I started thinking, what if I applied Dr. Peale's positive thinking to some of my favorite operas.

FURLAUD: How are you going to do this, Mr. Banks?

Mr. BANKS: Well, I've given them happy endings. Yes! And I bought this little opera company and we're going to perform the happiest operas you've ever heard.

FURLAUD: Banks is calling his new venture the Positive Opera Company, and he's actually launching it with a Mozart opera, the one he calls the Positive Don Giovanni.

Mr. BANKS: Remember how Don Giovanni, Don Juan, has seduced and abandoned over a thousand women? Terrible womanizer. And he's killed the father of one of these ladies in a duel. He's a military officer. At the end, there's this scary scene where a statue of this father, the commendatory, comes alive and tries to scare Don Giovanni into repenting.

FURLAUD: I remember, and he says, Don Giovanni, and he clutches him with his marble hand.

Mr. BANKS: Right. And when he won't repent, the commendatory sends him to hell. That's terrible, isn't it? Listen, I'll play some of the last scene to you.

(Soundbite of the opera Don Giovanni)

Mr. BANKS: Doesn't cheer you up, does it? Now, in my libretto, Don Giovanni does repent; in fact, he's born again. Born again. And he marries Donna Elvira and it's beautiful.

FURLAUD: Banks insists the radical plot shift will do no damage to Mozart's music.

Mr. BANKS: With Don Giovanni, that's no problem. You remember the soprano aria, Batti, batti, bel o bel Basetto. Well, I'm giving that to Don Giovanni to sing about being born again. And the ending, well, you remember the happy, peasant wedding music from act one? All that la, la, la and being happy? That one was easy. Now for the positive La Boheme...

FURLAUD: Don't tell me, Mimi is cured of TB?

Mr. BANKS: And my General Director, Jim Bryant(ph), the one who's run kids opera all these years, is taking the Puccini ending and composing his own Puccini ending. He happens to be a natural composer. So far, he's only composed hymns, but they're great hymns.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. JIM BRYANT (Director, Composer, Positive Opera Company): The orchestra swells right here.

FURLAUD: I went to see director Bryant at his little opera house behind Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Store in Eastham, the next town to Wellfleet. He was onstage, trying out new endings for La Boheme.

Mr. BRYANT: And gradually the orchestra swells to a nice, happy, positive ending. So it's very rough, still, but that's what we're working on at the moment.

FURLAUD: I asked Jim Bryant how he felt about the Positive Opera Company as a permanent addition to culture on Cape Cod.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think it's quite a challenge. As you know, we've only produced children's opera up until now. So tackling some of the powerhouses of the grand opera world is really quite a daunting thing. But it's very invigorating at the same time. It's a very big challenge. But Hamilton has just been so wonderfully optimistic and enthusiastic about the whole project that it really is infectious to all of us who are involved in it, and of course we're very grateful to have the funding that we have. I don't know if you've been up to his house, but I think it has something like 19 rooms.

FURLAUD: Before buying Mr. Bryant's children's opera company, Hamilton Banks asked several famous composers, John Williams for one, to compose his happy opera endings, but all of them turned him down. So has the Metropolitan Opera and the distinguished Boston Lyric Opera Company. I telephoned Linda Cabot Black, one of the Company's board members and a consultant, to get her take on the project.

Ms. LINDA CABOT BLACK (Board Member, Boston Lyric Opera Company): Oh, yes, Hamilton Banks did approach Boston Lyric Opera and offered us a fortune to change the endings. Of course we turned him down, thought it was a silly idea. People want to be moved, they want sob. Look at Butterfly, people flock to it so they can cry their eyes out. Why on earth doesn't he just simply go and produce the comic operas and the operas with happy endings? There are many of them, some by Mozart. How on Earth would Puccini and Wagner and the other great composers, what would they think about changing the endings? It would be just ludicrous.

FURLAUD: I put that question to Hamilton Banks on the Positive Opera Company's stage.

Mr. BANKS: I'll tell ya, Alice, I'm convinced that if Puccini and Verdi and Wagner and librettists had been able to read The Power of Positive Thinking, you know, and if the wonderful anti-depressant drugs we have today had been available, they'd never have written those depressing endings and maybe they'd never written the whole opera. Now, here's my most exciting plan. Tristan and Isolde, Wagner's love-making music, remember? And poor old Tristan dies of his wounds after that.

(Soundbite of the opera Tristan and Isolde)

Mr. BANKS: Liebestod, the love death. I'm going to make it the love life. Listen, here's what happens. Isolde comes across the sea to find Tristan's wound is only a scratch, it's not even infected. Jim, how are you getting on with that end?

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BRYANT: Well, Mr. Banks, I'm having a little bit of trouble sounding Wagnerian, but...

Mr. BANKS: Oh, I can hear it, it's good. Maybe a flute or oboe?

Mr. BRYANT: Yes, as orchestra swells, I was also hearing some French horn crescendo.

Mr. BANKS: French horn, oh, I adore the French horn.

FURLAUD: Whether or not Jim Bryant can pull that one off, he's gonna have a good try. With Mr. Banks' bankroll behind him, he's obviously thinking as positively as he can. For NPR News, I'm Alice Furlaud on Cape Cod.

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