The Phoenix Rises at The Houston Opera [SPOILERS GALORE]
Written by Stephanie Onyejekwe on May 20, 2019
The closest I’ve ever been to an opera was in the 5th grade. My teacher at the time, Ms. Sqaure, took us the watch the Houston Symphony; I think it was an outreach program because kids from other schools were at the Symphony as well. This was the beginning of my love for the classical genre (shout-out to chamber music). I got the opportunity to sort of relive that field trip when the Houston Grand Opera invited me to a performance of The Phoenix on Friday, May 10th.
My friend and I arrived at the opera house an hour and a half early. It was very beautiful inside, very elegant, just like the attendants of the opera. The Houston Opera has two little cafes and a small shop upstairs, and although the prices were super high, it was worth it! They even had cheese boards and nicely priced wine. The Phoenix was held on the lower floor of the Opera House, as it required one of the larger performance rooms. Did you guys know that whenever the show is about to start (about 10 minutes before) one of the employees plays the xylophone? It’s calming, yet alarming. At first you’re thinking, “What is that person doing…oh…it’s a signal to tell us to take our seats….oh”. I experienced a lot of great firsts at the Houston Opera House, beginning with the small things, like the xylophone or the playbill.
ACT 1, Spoilers 1
The show began promptly at 7:30 pm. As a person who has never heard an opera singer sing, I was a little bit confused about what was going on and how the audience could understand what was being said. I accepted my fate and decided that I would have to attend to many operas to build a certain skill—until my friend pointed out the translation screen located on top of the stage. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so left out. The opera is much like a live movie theatre. The whole “put your phones away” and “don’t be a distraction” speech you’re given at the beginning of the movie is also given at the beginning of the opera.
The Phoenix opens with a bunch of people running around, preparing to put on a play. It was a trippy concept that required your full attention, because The Phoenix is a story told as a play within a play. Although there were many people on stage at this time, it was very clear who the main characters were. We could tell the difference between supporting characters and the main characters by the quality of their clothing. As indicated by their costuming, Lorenzo Da Ponte and his son, Enzo, were clearly two of the main characters of the opera, which was nice for a beginner like me. Da Ponte opened up the show with a monologue, giving the audience a little insight into the context of the opera and his present goal: to open up an opera house in New York.
The opera really began when the company put on a play depicting the baptism and conversion of a young Da Ponte to Christianity. We learned that Da Ponte wasn’t born as Lorenzo Da Ponte, as the name was given to him when he converted. From the music, we could tell something horrible has either happened or was about to happen. Da Point’s father informs Da Point that his mother has died. Once this scene has passed, we break the opera’s fourth wall by switching to the present momentarily. A 78-year-old Da Ponte steps into the sidelines to warn viewers of the switch in language. He warns the next scene is in Italian and we, the viewers, would need a translator. This little banter tells us how playful he is, and also allows us to take note of his individualistic nature.
Although the older Da Ponte tried to lighten up the mood with a little banter, the scene afterward is equally as dark, if not darker. The next scene shows the supporting characters in masks, with minimal lighting. The minimal lighting has some serious effect, as it casts the shadows of the characters onto a creamy backdrop. The minimal lighting, along with the supporting casts singing about people living double lives gives the view goosebumps. This foreshadowing is really well done, and I commend the production for this. The supporting cast disperses and we catch a young Da Ponte (played by Enzo), is caught in bed with a young woman whose name is Angela.
Da Ponte’s relationship with Angela brings into question about free-will and choices. The viewers are reminded that Lorenzo Da Ponte is a Catholic priest, raised in the church since the age of 14. He is supposed to be celibate and detached from worldly relationships, but he decides that he cannot control himself. Which is, in my opinion, BS. By now, he is a grown man and definitely has a choice. Although he was too young to understand the implications of dedicating his life to the church at such a young age, he could’ve left. But then, how can you leave something you’ve known your entire life? Since the age of 14, all he’s known is the church, he doesn’t know what life outside of the church could be like. I also feel like he was robbed of making the choice but it was something that was already done, and again he could’ve left. He was low-key selfish, because at this time period the church was a safe socioeconomic place he wasn’t ready to give up. Essentially, young Da Ponte wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
It’s not even a different act, and yet a young Da Ponte is seen with another woman by the name of Anzoletta. This time, she’s pregnant with his child. As you can see, there is a pattern to the way this opera treats the women in young Da Ponte’s life, but we will get into it later on. In this period of his life, young Da Ponte’s mentor at the time, Giovanni, suggests he gives his child up for adoption. In Giovanni’s reasoning for suggesting the idea, I can’t help but sense some victim blaming. Giovanni claims to understand the young Da Ponte’s frustration with women since they are inherently seductive. Again, this is BS, because men aren’t instinctual animals. Humans are the superior species because we aren’t instinctual.
It is during this period that we are introduced to the concept of freedom. It is the Fall of 1776, and America is fighting for independence. A young Da Ponte voices his support and his desires to be free from the oppressive church. Giovanni counters his enthusiasm by stating that “too much freedom isn’t a good thing.” Eventually, a young Da Ponte gets snitched on and is expelled from Venice for 15 years. I think the expulsion was enough to knock young Da Ponte off his womanizing tendencies.
We are brought into the next phase of young Da Ponte’s life: Austria. It is implied that a young Da Ponte teamed up with a few composers to put on an opera, but it didn’t work out. After two failed attempts at a successful opera opening, emperor Joseph introduces him to Mozart. During The Phoenix, the initial introduction between Mozart and a young Da Ponte is quite cringy. It makes me eat my words and realize that MAYBE Da Ponte hasn’t learned his lesson, because Mozart catches him with a rendezvousing with a woman. The opera doesn’t even bother to tell us the woman’s name. At the beginning of the height of their collaboration, Austria is at war and Emperor Joseph is sick. In the opera, Emperor Joseph gives Mozart and Da Ponte his blessings and dies. Without the help of Emperor Joseph, Da Ponte is kicked out of Austria by his artistic enemies.
A young Da Ponte being kicked out of Austria because of his artistic enemies makes one questions whether or not a young Da Ponte is a good opera writer. Even at the beginning of The Phoenix, we don’t really see a passion for the opera in a budding Da Ponte. A view can attribute this to the oppressive church, but if you’re a good artist, you’re a good artist. A young Da Ponte previously tried to launch an opera twice and failed, he had to team up with Mozart to even garner a sense of accomplishment. This part of the play really makes the viewers question and doubt Da Ponte’s artistic ability. Although, the writers of The Phoenix want to make Da Ponte, this complex character, it just so easy to see him as a dick. At one point, we are transported to the present day, when a 78-year-old Da Ponte is hitting on the supporting character and his son Enzo is complaining because his father’s character is too complex.
After being cast out of Austria, he ends up in Trieste, Italy, where he learns that his friend Mozart has died. There, he meets a woman named Nancy. They are technically “married,” but not really. The viewers are reminded that Da Ponte still sees himself as a priest and cannot be married in a church. Instead, they marry in a synagogue. I think this is a good place to speak on this opera’s treatment of women. In The Phoenix, the women in young Da Ponte’s life are treated poorly. I’m not really sure if it’s the reflection of the time period, but Da Ponte’s past lovers brought important concepts into question, and yet they’re treated as non-important. All we really remember about them towards the end of Act 1 is the fact that all their names began with an A, and it was sort of a kink Da Ponte had. Even though it was done with the purpose of distinguishing his wife from his lovers, it’s still pretty gross. What qualities did these women have that the writers of The Phoenix needed a silly naming device to distinguish them from his wife? It just makes me conclude that there was nothing special about Nancy.
In fact, I don’t think he really loved Nancy until the day she died. She was a naive woman, half his age, who was probably easily manipulated. As we will soon see in Act 2, Nancy put up with a lot of Da Ponte’s behavior, and that’s apparently what makes her distinguishable. While in Italy, Nancy and Da Ponte lived in poverty. Da Ponte took a poet position in the King’s Italian Opera but wasn’t doing so well, because again he couldn’t have a successful opening. I really don’t think him and Nancy should’ve had children given the state of their finances. Imagine giving birth to a child and coming home to poverty. It’s madness— and it’s not even her fault really. Nancy and Da Ponte’s kids almost go to jail because of Da Ponte’s debt. When Nancy decided to flee to London, I let out a small “yas, leave him sis, you don’t deserve that.” Even though the primary reason she fled to London was to escape jail, I was still happy she left.
Act 2, Spoilers 2
The intermission was about 10-15 minutes, which is nice because those chairs weren’t comfortable at all. Act two was shorter, and in my opinion, a little rushed with a dash of laziness—which is okay, because overall it was a good opera. My friend and I had interesting conversations about the themes brought forth in this opera, one of them being Da Ponte’s refusal to give up. I tend to be a realist; if something isn’t working, I would just default to a plan B, while my friend is an idealist who believes you should continue fighting until your dreams come true. I have to question: what happens when your dreams never come true? Yes, your life would be more fulfilling chasing after your dreams, but real life stops for no one. Poverty is very real and very taxing.
The second act opens with Da Ponte fleeing to Philadelphia to be with his family, which just irks my soul, but whatever. In the opera, we learn that Da Ponte journeyed for two months to get to America. When he arrives, he breaks into song about how now he is truly free to write. This should’ve excited the viewers, but I felt like everyone believed he would fail in his endeavors. I will say that if that was the purpose of the scene, I commend the writers for the execution. When he arrives, he opens a store and is a grocer. This fails because he’s too nice, leaving open too many tabs. One would have to wonder why he isn’t writing operas on the side. If it’s one true passion, he would’ve been reading and writing opera even though no one was paying attention. As I’m writing this, I realized he might’ve been depressed for a while, and doing what needed to be done to survive. As usual, Nancy and Da Ponte close up shop and move to New York.
Here, during these tough times, you would expect him and Nancy to get closer. If they did, it wasn’t shown. It made me wonder why he chose to marry Nancy. They go on to open up a school in New York, where Da Ponte teaches Italian to men and Nancy teaches French to women. In doing so, we are shown that Nancy is quite the feminist. She teaches women to do something with their lives. In a way, I felt like she was telling them not to make the same mistakes she’s made. I also think this is where Da Ponte fell in love or gained some respect for Nancy. It was from this scene forward that she would make sure Da Ponte and his helpers included the advancement of women in their future plans. Because the school was thought of as being “too progressive for New York puritans,” they were forced to again close shop. Nancy and Da Ponte opened up a gin distillery but that didn’t even last two months, and they moved to Susquehanna.
There comes a time in our lives where we compare the things we have accomplished to those of our peers. In The Phoenix, Da Ponte and Nancy settled in Susquehanna and, according to the solo sang by Nancy, it was the best time of their lives. She never wanted to leave, but things changed after a conversation between Enzo and Da Ponte. Enzo reads a newspaper about a recent opera Don Giovanni and its recent success at the Kings Opera House. Da Ponte tells his son Enzo not to pursue the arts because it’s too hard of a path, and that Enzo should do something respectable like law. Enzo goes on to rebuke his father’s advice, claiming an equally eternal love of the arts, particularly opera. As a viewer, I would’ve loved to see more scenes about Enzo and his love for the arts. It’s understandable for Da Ponte to tell his son not to follow in his footsteps: It is a hard path, and no parent wants to see their child suffer as they have.
In Susquehanna, Da Ponte’s family can run away “from the cares of the world,” but after his conversation with Enzo, I knew that dream was shattered. Da Ponte uproots their family and moves to back to New York. Da Ponte moves back to Manhattan, which at the time was riff with the disease Typhus. Nancy loses two of her children, and eventually dies herself. The thing that really heats me up is the fact that Da Ponte’s success doesn’t come until Nancy dies. As I said, it’s so unfair that she suffered alongside him and didn’t get to enjoy his success. I hope she haunts him and he never knows peace.
Anyways, while Nancy was still alive but sick, the family was visited by Clark Moore. Moore is a family friend Da Ponte made at a bookstore while arguing about Italian opera writers. Da Ponte impressed him with his knowledge of Italian poetry and literature, and Moore offered Da Ponte a role at Columbia College as a professor of Italian Language and Literature. This job offer catches us up to present day Da Ponte with his dream of opening the first ever Italian Opera House in New York. After becoming a citizen, Nancy dies. The opera makes a scene of Da Ponte and Nancy professing their undying love to each other, but again, I don’t buy it. Life was really unfair to Nancy.
Enzo, still grieving his mother’s death, asks his father how they will fund the new opera they’re collaborating on called The Phoenix. Da Ponte says he will sell his library, which he does, but he saves a book for Enzo. Once the curtains closed and the viewers thought the opera was over, Da Ponte came out and told us to save our applause for the opening night of The Phoenix. At the true end of the show, it’s revealed that Enzo is the phoenix, rising from his father’s ashes. This is sort of a question mark for me, because if he is the phoenix, there should have been more focus on him. Sure, I understand the focus of the story being his father’s hard work paid off and all the sacrifices parents make for their kids, but if he’s “the phoenix” and the name of the opera is literally The Phoenix, I would’ve liked to see more Enzo. I would’ve also loved to see Da Ponte make good decisions based on what’s best for his family, instead of what he loved and needed if the writers were going to play on that concept.
In conclusion, although I obviously had some thoughts, it was amazing. I will definitely be attending operas more often. I rate The Phoenix a 7.5-8 out of 10.
Though the show is no longer playing, please check out the Houston Grand Opera’s 2019-20 season schedule here, as well as their upcoming free (!!!) performance of La bohème this Wednesday!