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In the operatic version of Doubt, Father Flynn (Matthew Worth) must defend his name after a suspicious Sister Aloysius (Christine Brewer) accuses him of sexually abusing an altar boy. (Minnesota Opera)

New Opera Gets Benefit Of The 'Doubt'

by Euan Kerr
Jan 25, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Playwright John Patrick Shanley transformed the text of his 2005 play Doubt into the libretto of a new opera. He says he appreciates the medium's musical and moral complexities.

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Euan Kerr

As a play, Doubt won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. As a movie, it secured Oscar nominations for Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. This weekend, Doubt gets its world premiere as an opera — which, according to the work's original playwright, provides the story's fullest telling.

As the opera opens, Father Flynn leads his congregation in mass and asks a question that will come back to haunt him. "What do you do, when you are not sure?" Flynn, sung by baritone Matthew Worth, asks.

The question provides the basis of his sermon, but it becomes the theme of Doubt's story, as suspicions arise about his relationship with one of the church's altar boys.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley says he was dubious when composer Douglas Cuomo first suggested he adapt this unsettling story for opera.

"Being a mook from the Bronx, my initial attitude to opera was like Bugs Bunny's, which was, 'Why are those people singing that way?' " Shanley says.

But today, Shanley — who wrote the screenplay for the movie based on his original play, and now the libretto for the opera — says he sees things differently.

"With opera, I have a new set of materials available to me in addition to the ones I have employed so far," he says. "So I took the materials of film and of stage and of music, and can tell an ever more three-dimensional story — and that's a fun and compelling challenge."

Playing With Tonality

Shanley's collaborators credit the musicality of his writing style for making it such a natural fit for opera. Still, composer Cuomo says it was a challenge to devise a score that properly produces a sense of unease while asking the question: Is Father Flynn innocent or guilty? Cuomo creates that extra edge by playing with tonality.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of adding just even one note to unsettle some more traditional-sounding major chord," Cuomo says. "You get a sense of familiarity, because here's a nice C major chord, but there's also this other note that doesn't belong in there. You have these two things happening at once that together add up to something that's slightly unsettling, or off-kilter."

The overall result is what Shanley calls a "Hitchcockian" score.

"That takes the best of the two previous mediums and adds to it this whole crayon box of audio color," Shanley says, "and it becomes something, a third thing, and maybe the most beautiful thing."

Not Without A Doubt

That combination of music, words and story has sparked its share of doubt in the Minnesota Opera's cast. Soprano Christine Brewer sings the role of Sister Aloysius, the school principal who becomes Father Flynn's accuser. Brewer is a former teacher herself and says she has seen the play a couple of times. The first time, she came away feeling that Father Flynn was guilty.

"And the next time I thought, 'Wow, maybe not,' " Brewer says. "And certainly to play this role, I have to believe he's guilty."

Another key role is that of Mrs. Miller, the mother of the boy at the center of the firestorm of suspicion, played by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Coming out of a recent rehearsal, Graves says that on that particular day she believed the priest might be guilty. But as an actor, she has to convey her character's internal debate between trying to discover what might have happened to her son and the desire to simply get him through the school year and on to better things.

"I think the fact that also she is an African-American is an important layer in this story," Graves says. "She is dealing with a lot here, and trying to hold everyone together — herself included."

Shanley says that even he doesn't know if Father Flynn is guilty, and that the operatic form allows the story's shades of gray to come through.

"Two people in a scene can be in complete disagreement, but in musical terms they are very much in agreement," Shanley says. "And that's a fascinating, different kind of a subtext to me. It's sort of like, 'We may on the face of it differ on many things, but we very much inhabit the same world with the laws of the universe.' "

All doubts aside, Shanley says he now wants to collaborate on more operas, including an operatic adaptation of one of his early screenplays: Moonstruck.

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