Anthony Davis' Tania (1992) retells the saga of Patty
Hearst, the newspaper heiress who in 1974 was
kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA),
only to emerge later as the machine-gun-toting Tania
during a daring bank robbery that, along with the
police raid and fire that killed five SLA members, was
captured on camera and broadcast repeatedly on
national television. Davis, along with librettist Michael
John La Chiusa have refashioned these events into a
highly symbolist dramaturgy bursting with
social/political commentary (though, thankfully, the
agitprop is confined to the SLA members). Davis'
score, based in both jazz and classical traditions (with
jazz predominating), covers a of range of styles, from
straight-ahead blues (Act 1's duet "And the funk goes
this way") to be-bop and modern avant-garde
(featuring some wicked solo work from the
instrumentalists). The vocal line varies from tuneful
and lyrical (Patty's aria "Once upon a time",
reminiscent of Bernstein's late style) to quirkily
disjointed and atonal, while the text is written in a
quasi-poetic style, with much line repetition.
The scenario is comprised of two mirror-image acts. In
Act 1 we meet Patty, her husband, and parents, whose
facile, privileged existence is lampooned in inane
bedroom discussions on the merits of crackers. Patty's
chief concern is who will play her in "the movie of the
story of my life", before she is lured into "closetland"
by the militant Cinque, whereupon she is raped and
subjected to intense brainwashing by the other SLA
members. Act 2 depicts Patty's emergence from the
closet as Tania, where she confronts her husband and
her parents (now in the personages of Betty Ford and
Fidel Castro). The TV news camera broadcasts live
Tania's criminal behavior and violent demise (she
returns to the closet, which is now a raging inferno as
her cohorts chant "come back to the rage!") But it is
Tania who has perished, not Patty, and as she resumes
her blasé and cracker-obsessed life, the opera ends as
--Victor Carr Jr.
The performers were well chosen for their roles.
Cynthia Aaronson-Davis is thoroughly convincing
both as Patty the vapid waif, and Tania, the
venom-spouting revolutionary. As Cinque, Avery
Brooks, known to the general public for his portrayal
of Captain Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space
Nine, presents a rich baritone voice to go along with
his stern and stoic acting style. Tenor Thomas Young
brings a wry irony (as well as solid singing) to the dual
roles of Dad and Fidel. David Lee Brewer does a
tragic/comic turn as Patty's ineffectual husband.
Conductor Rand Steiger leads Episteme, an ensemble
of crack jazz musicians, in a powerful realization of
the orchestral score. Koch's recording sets the
performers in what sounds like a large, empty hall.
Readers should take note that the dialogue contains a
good deal of incendiary rhetoric, some of it profane
to the point of offensiveness (are all those
scatological references to poodles really necessary?).
It's a good bet that unless you're a gangsta rap fan,
you've probably never heard the "f" word used so
many times in a musical setting (you most certainly
haven't heard it sung with such beauty of tone). Still,
all this adds an element of visceral realism, which
perhaps fulfills the intent of the authors. Wherever
you sit vis-à-vis the work's politics, or the boundaries
of good taste in art, Davis' and La Chiusa's Tania is an
experience you won't soon forget.