Sometimes, adaptation is a form of redundancy. I mean, to make a movie from a Stephen King novel is a superfluous act. His books are movies. Much the same, there would be no point in a cartoon version of any day’s news from the Trump administration. It’s already an infantile joke, though one whose humor wears thin awfully fast. And why make a PhotoShop collage of a Frank Gehry building? His structures are, almost by definition, a kind of digitally derived pastiche. I had thoughts along these lines when I first heard that the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös had decided to write an opera based on Tony Kushner’s drama of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America. The original play, a work of epic ambition and scale staged in two parts and running nearly seven hours in total, is utterly operatic. With no singing, no orchestra, and no supertitles, it has all the sweep and grandeur of Carmen, along with a kindred absorption with the themes of love, death, and identity politics.
Eötvös, a modernist esteemed in new-music circles for sonatas of sparkly imagination, collaborated with the librettist Mari Mezei, with whom he is married, to make an opera of Angels in America that condenses the play, paring it to its emotional essence—or Eötvös and Mezei’s conception of its essence—without diminishing it. The opera is a very different work and a work of a different kind, an adaptation without a bit of redundancy. Presented as the final production of the second season of the rejuvenated New York City Opera, Eötvös and Mezei’s opera of Angels in America is less operatic than the original.
Running slightly more than two hours in this production, the piece focuses tightly on the two entwined sets of relationships in the play: those of the gay partners Prior, who is dying, and Louis; and the ostensibly straight couple of Joe, who hooks up with Louis, and his wife, Harper, who endures her marital charade with the help of Valium. The notorious real-life attorney Roy Cohn figures prominently, too, as does the ghost of Cohn’s prosecutorial victim Ethel Rosenberg and a pontificating angel whom Prior summons in a vision. Hours of dialogue, including nearly every word of political content, along with substantial critiques of Ronald Reagan and his regime, are gone.
Kushner, in an interview about the opera, grumbled, “If you don’t know the story at all, I’m not entirely sure you can follow it.”
He’s right, and his point is irrelevant. With some five hours of scenes eliminated or telescoped, the full story of Kushner’s play is no longer present to follow. In its place, however, is something stirring in its own way and unexpectedly timely. If the original play endures as an essential document of the early history of AIDS, the opera works as a more cryptic and challenging, sometimes elusive but non-rationally moving exploration of what it feels like to be caught up in a plague.
The music and libretto by Eötvös and Mezei mingle spoken language and melody, lyricism and atonality, harmony and sound effects, with an emotional impact rare in contemporary music. (In the more experimental reaches of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar is doing something roughly parallel with comparable impact.) The opera embraces Kushner’s scheme of entangled reality and fantasy, and makes it visceral, sonically. The earthly and the otherworldly coexist in a state of volatile instability.
Twenty-five years ago, Tony Kushner gave us a monumental work that confronted AIDS with extravagant virtuosity. Now Peter Eötvös and Mari Mezei have taken inspiration from Kushner to produce a work of their own that’s more modest in scope, more ambiguous, more tentative, and wholly suitable to its time.