The Indianapolis Opera (IO) has found their steady footing with the opening of Kurt Vonnegut's Happy Birthday Wanda June (HBWJ) at the Schrott. For years, Hoosier son Vonnegut collaborated in New York with Richard Auldon Clark, Butler's Director of Instrumental Activities — and gave Clark his final libretto in April 2007. Vonnegut passed away only two weeks later at age 84.
This particular Vonnegut masterpiece may seem a darkly humorous and simple antiwar declaration at first glance, but those more familiar with this play and the rest of his oeuvre know that all of Vonnegut's work has numerous layers, both creatively complex and rich in social commentary. And under the direction of Eric Einhorn, Metropolitan Opera Stage Director and former singer, IO's HBWJ could have a significant emotional impact on audiences even now, which is most likely as Vonnegut would have wanted it.
"I wish we could have met," Einhorn says of Vonnegut. "But I do absolutely love listening to Richard's stories."
Einhorn has traveled an interesting road to get here. A dual study in both opera and direction in an academically intense design-your-own major program at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, his foundation and propensity to push both himself and others beyond their traditional comfort zones has earned him distinct notice. The Austin Chronicle has hailed Einhorn as "a rising star in the opera world" and the Opera News noted his "keen eye for detail and character insight."
"Vonnegut did not give us easy people to deal with ... and his work hinges on character development, not effect or spectacle. Wanda June is a complicated piece. But you can hear how much care Vonnegut took with this piece, and you can hear how much he loved opera," says Einhorn.
"By Vonnegut's own admission, Wanda June is a tricky piece," he continues. "And it was the ending that was the most difficult, that Vonnegut was never quite happy with whether it was on Broadway or on film. Audiences always seemed to expect something else; that surely, the piece could not possibly end on such a nihilistic spin of the ideals and values we hold sacred and dear. But then it does."
Einhorn's additional concern — while preserving Vonnegut's material and honoring the scribe's brilliant, yet ironic and jaded viewpoint — remained not distancing the audience.
"Even the worst of the worst humans, the Nazi soldier for example, had to become sympathetic — he wasn't a villain," says Einhorn. "Wanda June is not simply an analysis in World War II atrocities. The piece never feels antiquated, actually, and even with the cuts we had to make, for time, the piece flows at the pace of the music. Wanda June is enhanced through musical settings, and it benefits from being an opera ... moreover, Vonnegut's vision of heaven, life, the civilized world and the people who inhabit it is in contrast to much of how we think of what people are taught. His message that no one is pure, that no matter the behavior on earth, that the violence and brutality is reserved for just that — earth — and we all play well together in the end, is often difficult for some to take and others find it oddly comforting."
Einhorn admits that he still finds something new every time he visits the work.
"There's always something else to see — to understand — even though I've dug deep into this play to bring it alive," he says. "And I think audiences are going to take away a lot of things from this piece. Vonnegut was certainly not shy commenting on important issues. Although the play is set in the '60s and it will appeal to those who lived through the decade, I think others will appreciate the complexity, the operatic nature of the fact that nothing is black and white — that it's all about the gray. And this piece is deep in the gray. That makes many of us uncomfortable — and theater is supposed to do just that. This is a time period that opera doesn't usually deal with. We're supposed to be affected by the characters we meet, by our experiences. I want people to think about the piece, long after they have left, I want this piece still running through their heads when they go home."
(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Penrod Arts Fair [www.penrod.org]. Penrod Arts Fair had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)