Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is playing to sold-out houses in a star-filled revival in London, and Peter Eotvos’ operatic version premiered Saturday in New York at City Opera. A response to the AIDS epidemic and the lack of U.S. government action, the work still resonates in an era of polarized politics.
“The play in English has lasted now for 25 years, which is not long compared to ‘Oedipus,’ but it’s pretty long for a contemporary play to still be able to generate excitement, and it’s taught everywhere in colleges,” Kushner said. “All of my stuff does best during Republican administrations because I hate them so much, and there is an anger in the plays that I think really speaks in times of political mischief of a high order.”
Formally titled “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” the two-part play runs for nearly seven hours, not including intermissions. “Millennium Approaches” premiered in San Francisco in 1991 and “Perestroika” the following year in Los Angeles, Both parts won Tony Awards, and “Millennium Approaches” earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
An HBO miniseries in 2003 directed by Mike Nichols starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. When Paris’ Theatre du Chatalet was seeking to commission a new work from Eotvos, a composer friend recommended “Angels.”
“He asked me if I would prepare a libretto. And I said no. I said I don’t quite understand how a 6 1/2 hour-long play can be turned into a libretto that’s anything shorter than the Ring Cycle,” Kushner said. “But I said that he was welcome to try.”
Eotvos’ wife, Mari Mezei, took about a year to condense “Angels” to an opera of just over 2 hours. They traveled to New York, attended “Rent,” “Cabaret” and other Broadway shows to get a feel for the city.
“I went out to Central Park at night and listened to the sounds,” the 73-year-old composer said through a translator. “There were remote sounds of city in the background. There was actually a guitar playing, and that’s where this guitar solo is actually coming from.”
“Angels” centers on Prior Walter, who has AIDS, the people in his life and controversial lawyer Roy Cohn. Central is Prior’s vision of an angel, who declares him a prophet.
“The idea of the angel and the hallucinations was musical inspiration,” Eotvos said. “Everything that is abstract can be put into the music.”
The opera version shifts the emphasis.
“Politics is not the territory of music,” Eotvos remembered telling Kushner. “The names of politicians are gone in a certain amount of time, so they’re not interesting anymore. It was much more important to emphasize this human condition.”
A student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Eotvos composed “Angels” with speech morphing into song, syncopating percussion and electronic keyboards.
The opera was given its world premiere at the Chatalet in 2004 with Barbara Hendricks and Julia Migenes. It has since appeared in Hamburg, Germany; Amsterdam; Boston; Fort Worth, Texas; Frankfurt, Germany; London; Wroclaw, Poland; and Los Angeles.
Michael Capasso, who brought New York City Opera out of bankruptcy last year, decided to cap the first full season of the company’s return with four performances of “Angels” running through June 16, the first installment of a LGBT Pride Initiative that will include Charles Wuorinen’s “Brokeback Mountain” next June.
And while the opera makes its New York premiere, Marianne Elliott’s acclaimed staging starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane is running until Aug. 19 at London’s National Theatre. Kushner says it likely will transfer to Broadway next season.
“It feels to me like I can stop worrying about it once and for all. I think it’s going to last,” said Kushner, who turns 61 next month. “I don’t know if the human race is going to last. But I think that the play is.”