From Swing to Stravinsky

"Powder her Face" meshes dissonant notes with a scandalous plot.


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Powder Her Face
The Kimmel Center for the Arts
June 7,-16, 2013

“Being a duchess doesn’t make her a lady,” the tagline read, and I immediately knew Opera Philadelphia’s production of Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face was going to be good. The modern, English-language opera is based on the notorious scandal surrounding the 1963 divorce of British socialite Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and cites divergent musical influences from swing to Stravinsky. As if that weren’t reason enough, I was completely sold when I learned that the show has an operatic fellatio scene—after all, how many opportunities do you have to see that at the opera? Needless to say I was intrigued, and as the lights dimmed in the Perelman Theater, I knew I was in for a treat.

When the music began, the first word I wrote was “salacious.” The overture was scandalous and cacophonous with jazzy overtones complimented by a coquettish accordion and gossiping clarinets. It evokes an air of a snooty high society where using the wrong fork at the dinner table is definitely going to raise some eyebrows. I loved the sound, but was curious to see how this would translate into the songs since most operas I’ve seen were done in a more classical style.

The curtain rose to reveal a gorgeous, almost all off-white set designed to look like a high-class hotel. The room held many mirrors and materialistic trifles—shelves of wigs and hats, a well-stocked vanity, at least a dozen pairs of shoes, and a huge rack of clothes. It is 1990, and the duchess’s chambermaid is cracking up as an electrician wears one of her fur coats, mocking her sexual proclivities and snobby disposition. Naturally, the duchess walks in during the middle of his routine and begins bossing them around. My favorite demand: “Bring me my other fur.” It immediately becomes apparent that the duchess’s life revolves around her material possessions as she requests her maid bring her, “…pearls for before six, and diamonds for after.” The melodies are disjointed and a little uncomfortable, like when your Fox-worshipping conservative grandfather starts arguing with your die-hard liberal brother at Thanksgiving. It definitely wasn’t your average opera.

The opera continues with a flash back to the duchess’s glory days during the 1930s when, newly divorced from her first husband, she was determined to marry the Duke of Argyll. In a shocking departure from her snooty disposition in the last scene, the duchess brags to her friends about how rich and good in bed the Duke will be. As their wedding transpires, a maid throws away lavish, untouched food and pours champagne in the garbage while complaining about wanting to be rich in a very biting tone. “She doesn’t look happy,” she sings, “…she looks rich.”

Her words turn out to be prophetic as the next scene finds the white-silk clad duchess pacing and bored in her hotel room. She picks up the phone to call for room service and begins humming lustily, pacing around like a cat in heat. Finally, a waiter picks up and she summons him to bring her wine and sandwiches, and then proceeds to seduce him, instructing him to “be discreet, be good, be brutal.” It was actually hilarious to watch the waiter nervously avert her advances until she gets on her knees. My eyes became huge and I put my hand over my mouth in shock as I watched the fellatio scene transpire—I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, scowl, or pretend like it wasn’t happening. I won’t describe the scene in detail here—you’ll have to see it yourself. Needless to say, though, it was unlike anything I’d seen in the opera before.

Kailey Kluge is a junior International Area Studies Major at Drexel University.

All images courtesy of Opera Philadelphia