In opera 'Powder Her Face,' a touchy soprano role

Soprano Patricia Schuman, in costume as the Duchess of Argyll, practices in her dressing room before a dress rehearsal of Thomas Adès' opera. "It's a challenge for someone who loves to act, and I love to act."
Soprano Patricia Schuman, in costume as the Duchess of Argyll, practices in her dressing room before a dress rehearsal of Thomas Adès' opera. "It's a challenge for someone who loves to act, and I love to act." (STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 05, 2013

Her first concern was The Scene. Patricia Schuman had never sung Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, in Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face. But when Opera Philadelphia called to offer the role, it wasn't the unusually short notice - two weeks before the first rehearsal - that gave her pause.

How would this production handle the opera's most notorious nonmusical element? Would the depiction of fellatio be nudged in a direction more or less explicit?

"When I saw that they had already chosen the director, I asked to see the sets and costumes, and that told me a lot," Schuman said. "When I saw that the sex scene is just suggested [behind a couch], I felt more comfortable. I just didn't want to be used by a director making a name for himself."

It's a scene that helped the composer make his name, but today it's something of an injustice that one quick piece of action has loomed larger than Adès' inventive score to the chamber opera, which Opera Philadelphia opens Friday night at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater for five performances.

Still, it remains to be seen to what extent director William Kerley allows the music to be subsumed by the opera's splashy central character, the 20th-century British socialite with a private-turned-public life of tabloidian proportions.

The piece was premiered in 1995, when Adès was 24. And while his age - librettist Philip Hensher was only slightly more seasoned - raises the question of whether an older composer would have made the same decisions, the music and the action are in fact inseparable.

"It was kind of embarrassing. The first time we did it we couldn't look each other in the eye," Schuman said of her scene with Christopher Tiesi, who plays the Electrician.

Adès looks outside the traditional opera pit soundscape to make his points. In this production, conducted by Corrado Rovaris, just 17 musicians are used, but among the instruments they play are a slide whistle, accordion, fishing reel, whip, popgun, and lion's roar (a percussion instrument that sounds just as you'd expect).

These, too, suggest a composer interested in novelty for novelty's sake - "somewhat exhibitionist" is how one early critic referred to the instrumentation. But at its premiere, and even more so now, Powder Her Face has been perceived as the first outing of a composer of enormous substance. Though he has but a relatively small catalog of works, each has had great impact, and Adès has become known as a talent on the scale of Benjamin Britten before him.

Absorbing an element that seems to be in the air, he often sifts the past. In Arcadiana, for string quartet, it is as if he "were rummaging through the ruins of Western music, salvaging shards of sound that suited his patchwork purposes," this critic wrote. In Powder Her Face, Adès quotes Schubert, references swing music, Berg, and Der Rosenkavalier, and breaks into an Ástor Piazzolla tango.

An orchestra part that passes quickly, like a cartoon in mosaic, is a treacherous thing for a singer. One compelling reason to take the role, Schuman reasoned, was that "as opposed to Mozart, there are no iconic performances. You can create your own role." The vocal difficulties include picking out the right pitches from the manifold sounds emanating from the pit.

"It's a great role," says Schuman. "It's a challenge for someone who loves to act, and I love to act, and for a musician who loves contemporary scores, which I do. It has melodic moments, lines that are beautiful but also very challenging. It's a difficult score."

For the orchestra, too. Adès masters the marriage between voice and individual instruments, asking each to stretch halfway to meet the other, often commenting on each other. Rarely has a tango sounded as loose and lurid as the one that opens the piece, the winds bending pitch like so many morals transgressed. When the maid laughs, the horn laughs at her.

"There's a great deal of humor in it, he's having fun with it all," Schuman says. "He is one of the great composers of our time. There's so much Britten in it, but you can tell he's really connected to his past and yet there's something so original about it. It's very much his own style. The music is really sexy."

And yet, to listen to it, the notoriously explicit scene is anything but sexy. The music lurches and convulses. It's less about ecstasy or sensuality than friction and hard work, and at the end you're simply relieved that it is done.

"All the sound effects are so over-the-top," Schuman says. "I think it's tongue-in-cheek, as opposed to some porn scene."

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or Read his "ArtsWatch" blog at

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