In a small, intimate “black box” theater at Eastman School of Music, Philip Glass’ opera “Les Enfants Terribles,” based on Jean Cocteau’s novel of the same name, was performed on Feb. 2.
A thin, moonlit screen separated the stage and the audience, and when the curtains opened it poured over the theater. Two beds, a coffer, stepladders, and drab chairs composed the scenery. Then, two taciturn dolls, looking like hospital patients in white nightgowns, could be seen. Dancers interacted with each other, flying around the room, and groping each other in the dark.
“Les Enfants Terribles” tells the story of two orphans, Elizabeth and Paul, who are brought to life by senior singers of the Eastman School of Music, Nicole Minielli and Adam Wells. While Elizabeth looks after her bedridden mother, Paul is obsessed with a school crush, Dargelos, until she throws a snowball containing a sharp stone at his chest. Paul becomes confined to the family home due to his injury and Elizabeth begins to look after him as well. Isolated from the outer world, the siblings become engulfed in a twisted mental game, which they play in their shared bedroom, that involves creating psychodramas. The winner is the individual who gets the last word. “In their life the children plunged into the game. To disturb the game was inexcusable and unforgivable,” narrates their school friend Gerard, played by Anders Namestnik.
As the opera progresses, the behavior of the two siblings becomes more and more appalling. When they discover the death of their mother, they hold hands and hysterically laugh.
Tensions build when Elizabeth marries a Jewish man, who dies on the way to a business trip right before their honeymoon. Elizabeth inherits his estate and the siblings decide to move in. Agathe, a friend of Elizabeth’s, who looks similar to Dargelos, moves into the house as well. Paul and Agathe fall in love with each other. When Elizabeth finds out about their feelings, she encourages Gerard to propose to Agathe because she feels that Agathe will steal her brother’s attention. Gerard and Agathe are married while Paul plunges deep into despair. After taking a lethal dose of Opium, Paul is found dying by Elizabeth who chooses to shoot herself in a final attempt to with the Game and one-up her brother.
“When choosing the cast we were looking at the combination of things,” said Steven Daigle, the artistic director of Eastman Opera Theatre and director of the production. “Their voices should imitate kids, while still sounding professional. And that’s part of the learning experience, because they have to give up some operatic maneuvers to better pass the meaning.”
The size of the room mattered too, according to Daigle. Because it was so small, and because the audience was so close to the stage, it created an intimate environment that could either helped and intervened with the singers’ performances.
“But this is a great learning tool,” said Daigle, “because if [the performers] feel comfortable in that space the chances are that they will feel comfortable in any space.”
The performers tried to intrigue the audience by giving more questions than solid answers.
“We also considered deeply the relevancy,” said Daigle, “and the two characters who play the so-called game, which leads to death and destruction, and this has a symbolic meaning. The key is that they are not psychopaths, but humans, like you and I.”
Jean Cocteau, the author of the novel, was an opium addict who struggled with his homosexuality. He wrote the play while recovering from his addiction.
Daigle argues that the theme of the opera is relevant today and that people have forgotten how to sympathize with others and the significant influence adults have over children.
“Our main task was to make the audience sympathetic,” he said.“And to point out that these kids act like that because they are abused and don’t know any other way. Nobody taught them the other way.”