'Harvey Milk' Work Takes Provocative Stance

'in-your-face' politics taint what might have been a moving account

'Harvey Milk,'' by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie, joins a small but growing list of modern operas that want to raise a ruckus.

It succeeded in that goal even before its premiere last January at the Houston Grand Opera, which coproduced it. The troupe reportedly suffered angry board meetings, attacks from religious groups, and loss of corporate funding, all spurred by the opera's subject: the life and death of an openly gay San Francisco city official, murdered in 1978 by a fellow politician outraged by what he perceived as the decline of traditional American values.

''Harvey Milk'' was warmly applauded by last Tuesday's opening-night audience at New York City Opera, which joined Houston and the San Francisco Opera in sponsoring the production. Yet it wasn't hard to detect elements of the piece -- from irreverent jokes to scenes of homosexual affection -- that run against the usually conservative grain of American high culture.

Even after works like ''Satyagraha'' and ''Nixon in China'' have legitimized opera's exploration of contentious issues in recent history, some topics remain too sensitive to handle without controversy, and the martyrdom of a gay-rights activist is clearly among these.

Complicating things further is Korie's decision to offer not a wholly factual ''docu-libretto'' but a multilayered text with a vehement political perspective -- comparing today's homophobia with the anti-Semitic horrors of the Holocaust, for instance -- and a penchant for fictions and fantasies that even supporters of Milk's cause might find wrong-headed at times.

Wallace's score is equally eclectic, as transcendent melodies and heart-wrenching dissonances bump against high-stepping rhythms and campy outbursts. While it's an odd mixture, its unpredictability and occasional outrageousness suit Milk's legacy of openness to diversity and eccentricity.

Music and text are served well by Christopher Alden's stage directing and Paul Steinberg's set design. Again, many influences are apparent, including slow-motion staging borrowed from Robert Wilson and eloquent spatial arrangements reminiscent of Peter Sellars's work.

The action takes place on a slanted triangular stage that recalls German expressionist cinema while echoing the yellow and pink triangles worn by Jews and homosexuals during their persecutions in the Nazi era. Jeff Davis's kaleidoscopic lighting adds striking visual impact.

Robert Orth's portrayal of the title character -- a people-loving populist who's always amiable and energetic, if understandably edgy at times sets the pace for an excellent cast. Among the standouts are Raymond Very as Dan White, the slogan-spouting assassin; Gidon Saks as George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor killed with Milk in White's assault; and Juliana Gondek as Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor after the double murder and is now a United States senator.

Christopher Keene led the orchestra with his usual vigor on opening night, although he wasn't able to improve the perfunctory chutzpah of the showy production numbers. The overreaching melodrama of the Stonewall Riot scene (based on a New York gay-community uprising against police harassment) succeeded less in stirring passions than in fuzzing coordination between stage and orchestra pit.

Often viscerally thrilling, emotionally moving, and laugh-out-loud funny, yet marred by arch moments that might easily have been avoided, ''Harvey Milk'' is as provocative as the maverick who inspired it.

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