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On the first day of rehearsal for "Doubt" at the Minnesota Opera, librettist John Patrick Shanley told singers, musicians and others a story from the night before. Shanley, who wrote "Doubt" first as a play and then as a movie, had been picked up at the airport by a woman assigned to drive him into town. Minneapolis streets had flooded that night because of a water-main break, so Shanley and his driver had lots of time to talk.
"She told me she had seen the film and she didn't think turning it into an opera was a very good idea," Shanley said, laughing. "We're here to prove her wrong."
Shanley and composer Douglas Cuomo will get a sense of whether this was a good idea when "Doubt," commissioned by the Minnesota Opera, has its world premiere Saturday at Ordway Center. They are hoping this third iteration of Shanley's taut mystery will blossom further through Cuomo's music.
"Doubt" seems closer to Shanley's heart than any of the other nine films and 23 plays he has written. "I've written this to share with you all what it is to be me," he told a small crowd at a screening of the film earlier this month in Minneapolis.
The 2005 stage play won the Pulitzer and Tony Awards. The 2008 film drew Oscar nominations for Shanley's adaptation and for actors Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Both versions delicately balanced tension, language and implication.
Now, however, Shanley enters a realm in which his command of language takes second place to music. Perhaps Shanley's driver wondered legitimately how this subtle story about perceptions could express itself through the grand machinery of opera.
"You enter an alternate universe where nuance is a different thing," Shanley said, when asked that question during a workshop last summer. "I hadn't done an opera before, and I thought it's so interesting -- I said to Doug that two people in the scene can be at complete disagreement with each other but on musical terms, they are very much in agreement. And that's a fascinating, different kind of subtext for me."
Shanley revisited the point when he spoke at the film screening.
"You reach for the materials you have in each case to tell the story," he said. "If you're an artist, are you working with clay, paint, granite? It's the same idea."
Cuomo has written extensively for stage, having scored 15 productions for the Roundabout Theatre in New York, where he lives. He also has composed for concert, television and opera.
Two years ago, over coffee, he pitched "Doubt" to Dale Johnson, Minnesota Opera's artistic director.
"John's language is so musical," Cuomo said. "There was something in the way it was structured -- the sermons, for example, they were like arias."
"Doubt: A Parable" was a one-act stage play about a nun and priest who cross horns in 1964. Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn of an improper relationship with an altar boy. Even though the nun never produces evidence, Flynn leaves the parish.
Shanley directed the 2008 film in the Bronx neighborhood of his childhood, opening up the four-character play with dozens of schoolchildren and exterior locations ("These are the streets and rooftops I played on").
The story invites the question: Did Father Flynn do it? Shanley has repeatedly said that is beside the point.
"I don't know if he did it," he said, when the question was asked at the screening in Minneapolis. "I've told you all I know about those people. I don't know what goes on in my neighbor's house. I don't even know for sure what goes on inside myself."
Johnson was intrigued by Cuomo's suggestion about making an opera from "Doubt." His company is in a five-year New Works Initiative to stage seven new or rarely produced works. The highest-profile product was 2011''s "Silent Night," which won the Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts. That triumph, along with Shanley's celebrity, has piqued the interest of the New York Times, which Johnson said has indicated it will review "Doubt."
As they prepared for workshops in Minnesota last winter, Cuomo and Shanley traded music and lyrics and talked through every note until they had an understanding.
Then came a series of trial-and-error workshops. Should this story become a chamber opera with four characters? Should the creators use large choruses of parishioners and schoolchildren? Everything was on the table as Cuomo, Shanley and Johnson listened to the score sung for the first time last March.
The team returned to Minneapolis in early June for more extensive work, with director Kevin Newbury and conductor Christopher Franklin. Shanley and Cuomo huddled at a table, getting into granular detail and finding ways to draw the music closer to the lyrics.
Getting on its feet
These bones took on flesh shortly before Christmas, as the Minnesota Opera rehearsal hall filled with singers, musicians, designers, production staff, administrators and curious patrons. Cuomo listened as the music took full form with dissonant chords, shifting tempi, tense staccato and contrasting sweeping arpeggios. Johnson at one point sat at the piano to plunk out melody lines for the singers.
"It's dense stuff, and I'm trying to help them find their line -- thin it out a little," he said.
At one point in the afternoon, mezzo soprano Denyce Graves arrived, dressed for an evening out in contrast to the three other principals -- Christine Brewer (Sister Aloysius), Matthew Worth (Father Flynn) and Adriana Zabala (Sister James) -- in their casual sweaters and sneakers. Brewer, a Wagnerian soprano, makes her Minnesota Opera debut; Worth, Graves and Zabala return to the company. Graves sings the role of Mrs. Miller, the mother whose son is befriended by Flynn. The cast also includes choruses of parishioners and students.
"The singers and the musicians are at a point where it no longer matters what I think," Cuomo said with a laugh on the first day of rehearsal. "They need to have a frozen score for this performance, so I'm looking for things to address in the future."
The Minnesota Opera put $670,000 into developing "Doubt," and Johnson said he expects the production budget to hit about $600,000. "Silent Night," with a larger cast and orchestra, had a development budget of $1 million.
Speaking after the first few days of rehearsals, Johnson said he felt the piece was starting to cohere.
"Getting the dramatic complexity to pair up with the musical complexity has been a challenge, and it feels like it just came together this week," he said. "We had our first real staging on Saturday and you put it on a stage and put a physicality to it, and suddenly all the characters come to life."
Shanley, his voice hoarse and tired at the end of a long day, said that he felt the piece was "kind of working, I'm happy to say."
But then, nothing is certain.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299