Dale Johnson looks exactly how one would picture Minnesota Opera’s artistic director. Well-dressed, silver-haired, and exceedingly polite, he ushers me into his third-floor corner office, clearing programs and notebooks off a chair so I can sit. Scripts, posters, and books cover the place, adding an artsy touch to the already aesthetically pleasing space. Once an old warehouse, the structure suits its tenant: exposed-brick walls and wooden beams accent the building’s history and durability, while its contents—colorfully decorated cubicles, glossy promotional posters, fashion-forward employees—suggest that it remains relevant even now, decades after it was established. Such can also be said of the Minnesota Opera. The company, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, balances its rich history with modernity, coupling the classics—Madame Butterfly, La Bohème—with boundary-pushing world premieres—Grapes of Wrath in 2007, Silent Night in 2011, and, this month, Doubt.
Johnson says the idea to transform John Patrick Shanley’s play-turned-movie into an opera was hatched a few years ago. He was chatting with composer Doug Cuomo when Cuomo mentioned he had approached Shanley about making his then recently released film into an opera. Johnson was shocked. “Strangely, we’d also been looking at Doubt as potential material for our New Works Initiative,” he says. “It seemed to be tailor-made for opera—that Doug also saw it just affirmed what we’d already been thinking.”
In August 2011, Johnson called Cuomo to talk again about the idea. But this time, he was ready to do more than brainstorm. “I told Doug we needed something quick, and asked if he could turn it around for January 2013,” Johnson tells me, his eyes lighting up as he recalls the conversation. “He said he could, and that was that.”
It is unusual for the Minnesota Opera to crank out brand-new productions in such a short time frame (Johnson says composers and lyricists are usually given at least two years to put together new shows, not the year-and-a-half he gave Cuomo and Shanley). But it is not unusual for the company to stage world premieres. Conceived by the Walker Art Center in 1963 as Center Opera, the company’s main task was “to compose and perform new works by American composers.” This unique focus on contemporary pieces distinguished Center Opera from more traditional troupes. Nationally, it was an anomaly, regarded by many as progressive and often dubbed “alternative.” Locally, too, it stood out: where the St. Paul Opera stacked its seasons with Mozart and Vivaldi, Center Opera performed works from Dominick Argento and Benjamin Britten.
In 1969, Center Opera split from the Walker, changing its name to the Minnesota Opera in 1971 and, in 1975, merging with the St. Paul Opera. Along with the merger came the compromise of adding traditional repertoire to its billings. But even then, the company never abandoned its original commission: to give new works the opportunity to someday become classics.
That mission came into jeopardy in the early 2000s, however. As Johnson faced budget cuts and the challenge of trimming the opera’s season from five shows to four, he wrestled with his choices: should he do as the majority of opera companies do and concentrate on staging only time-tested, audience-approved classics? Or should he keep with his company’s history of pursuing new pieces and setting the pace nationally for progressive, thought-provoking opera? After discussing it with the opera’s board members, Johnson says the answer quickly became clear: keep the contemporary work. “Our audience was tired of seeing the same thing year after year,” he says. “We were producing the ‘top 10’ operas every five to six seasons, but our audience was responding most to the new works. So we decided to be bold and give them what they wanted.”
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.