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The Many Lives of ‘The Hours’ Echo Through Contemporary Opera

Michael Cunningham's novel gets a new interpretation from the Met, available to watch Live in HD. IndieWire paid it a visit.

The Hours opera

“The Hours”

Evan Zimmerman

It may be hard for devoted cinephiles to imagine anyone other than Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore as the three leads in “The Hours,” but trust that The Metropolitan Opera found their counterparts in the classical world. Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel gets a third life, fitting for its tripartite story structure, in the Met’s poetic adaptation of the poignant story of three women living the same day across decades. Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato lead The Met’s gorgeous new production, gathering three of the singing world’s most revered divas onto one stage for a rare collaboration.

This alone is reason enough to see it, which audiences can on December 10 thanks to The Met Live in HD. For film lovers unsure about opera, let the reasonably priced ticket be a gateway to new experiences. Phelim McDermott’s creatively staged production and Tom Pye’s clever set and costume design should read beautifully onscreen, crafted as they are to be seen from afar. Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce leave only the meat of the story, choosing familiar lines of repetition as guiding refrains.

Fittingly, the opera opens with the famous first line of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” the novel her character (DiDonato) is writing in “The Hours.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” echoes liltingly from the chorus, a malleable swarm of singers who transform into various set pieces, most notably a giant bed of flowers that nearly engulfs the harried Clarissa (Fleming). The sunny 1950s kitchen belonging to suburban housewife Laura (O’Hara) is a delight for design fans, and its oppressive cheeriness belies her inner turmoil.

With its three-part structure and story about the inner lives of women, “The Hours” works surprisingly well onstage. The three distinct worlds and eras sit side by side before eventually swirling together in a hypnotizing final trio.

“The great thing that opera can do is simultaneity,” The Met’s dramaturg Paul Cremo told IndieWire. “You can have three people in three different decades singing onstage at the same time. And that’s something you can’t really do quite the same way in a movie, unless you’ve got a split screen. So it presented a lot of really exciting musical and dramatic challenges.”

Kelli O'Hara in "The Hours"

Kelli O’Hara in “The Hours”

Evan Zimmerman

Though they were fans of the film, the creative team worked mostly from the book as the original source material. As a former soundtrack executive for Sony who scouted “The Pianist” at Cannes, Cremo sees unique similarities between film and opera.

“In opera, the conductor is conducting every moment,” said Cremo. “There is this driving force, which is the music and the conductor that pushes the piece forward. In the same way that the pacing of the editing and the film score push the film forward and give you clues as to how to react and support what’s going on in the emotional life of the characters in the story. And I firmly am convinced that if Verdi or Puccini or even Mozart were alive today, they would certainly be writing film scores. In its day, opera was for the public. It was mass entertainment, just the way our big blockbuster movies are today.”

As institutions like The Met and The New York City Ballet look to the future, they must invent new ways to bring these classic mediums back to the people. Earlier this year, audiences flocked uptown to hear a new composition by Solange Knowles, who became the second Black woman to have a score commissioned by the NYCB with the new ballet “Play Time.” Just as film studios rely on existing IP, The Met is commissioning new work in the hopes of attracting new audiences.

“American opera companies in particular are interested in developing new operas because they found American audiences respond really well to something that’s in English,” Cremo said. “And if it’s based on a movie or a book or story that’s known, a historical thing or a news story drawn from today’s headlines, people can get really excited about it. And opera doesn’t seem so remote to them.”

“The Hours” plays The Met Live in HD on Friday, December 10 and Wednesday, December 14. Tickets available here

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