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Casting Doubt

Already a heralded success as both a play and a movie, Doubt now takes its bows on the opera stage

Casting Doubt
Photo by Karl Gehrke, MPR News

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Johnson took this boldness one step further in 2007 with the launch of the New Works Initiative. The seven-year, seven-million-dollar project is a modern-day reflection of Center Opera’s original goal, focusing on new commissions and revivals of contemporary American works. This year’s choice: Doubt.

Some playwrights have grandiose dreams for their work, planning out its future as a parent would for a child. John Patrick Shanley is not such a playwright. “Survival is the hope,” he says, his Bronx accent not nearly as noticeable over the phone as I’d anticipated. “It doesn’t need to be genius, it’s just gotta work. To strive only for excellence is too vague. If you make it work—that’s when you’ve done something.”

Despite Doubt’s great success as a play and a film (four Tony Awards, including Best Play; the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and five Academy Award nominations), Shanley was nonetheless surprised when Cuomo approached him about making it into an opera. “It had never occurred to me,” he says. “Opera’s an art form I’d never been involved with. It was intriguing to me that I could express myself in a different way.”

The presentation may be different—arias instead of monologues, duets instead of conversation—but the plot is the same. The story takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and school in Bronx, New York. The school has just admitted its first African American student, Donald Miller. One day, Donald returns from a private meeting with Father Flynn looking disheveled and upset. Sister James, his teacher, reports this to the school’s principal, Sister Aloyicius, inadvertently sparking in her a suspicion that the priest has sexually molested the boy. As accusations build and both parties seek to prove the other wrong, it becomes less and less clear who—if anyone—is at fault.

The story is rife with tension and emotion, all of which becomes even more powerful with the aid of music, says Shanley. “Music opens the heart of the characters and audience,” he says. “It allows the audience to linger and investigate the moment more fully. You get more periods of extension to feel compassion with the characters.”

One thing the opera doesn’t do, however, is offer a new twist on any of the characters—especially not Sister Aloyicius. “I have not fundamentally altered her,” Shanley says, shrugging off Johnson’s suggestion that he has rewritten her to be more sympathetic. “People always have a unique reaction to Sister Aloyicius. It has more to do with their childhood than with me. One person thinks she’s a demon, and the person next to them thinks she’s absolutely right about everything.”

That an opera’s writer and director would perceive a character so differently is one of the reasons Doubt has survived its year on both Broadway and Hollywood: the story offers no clear answers. Did Father Flynn abuse Donald, or is Sister Aloyicius simply envious of his power? Does Sister James really believe Father Flynn is innocent, or is that just the easier conclusion to stomach? Audiences have wrestled with these questions since the play’s 2004 debut, and will face them yet again on January 26. But even as they tackle the task of discerning truth from lies and innocence from guilt, one thing that will remain unresolved is whether or not they’re right. Because when it comes to such delicate matters as this, there’s always room for doubt.

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