The Beggar’s Opera: Satire for Stumptown

UPDATE: Also read David Stabler’s feature on Stephen Marc Beaudoin’s adaptation of “The Beggar’s Opera” in Tuesday’s Oregonian. David digs a little more deeply into the social politics of the adaptation. See his story here on Oregon Live, or with bigger versions of Brian Lee’s rehearsal photos in The O’s dead-tree edition.

William Hogarth, scene from The Beggar's Opera, 1728. Tate Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

ABOVE: William Hogarth, “The Beggar’s Opera,” 1728. Tate Gallery/Wikimedia Commons. INSET BELOW: Scot Crandal (Mack) and Emily Zahniser (Lucy) in Opera Theater Oregon’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” Photo: Katie Taylor, Opera Theater Oregon

“What think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?”

Jonathan Swift, casting about for a fresh entertainment for the London stage, made this modest proposal to his friend and fellow satirist Alexander Pope in 1716.

A dozen years later (people took their time in the 18th century) their friend John Gay picked up the idea, turning it from a pastoral into a satire on Italian opera and creating the succes de scandale of 1728, The Beggar’s Opera.

Thieves and whores there were aplenty, plus a clutch of unfortunate impregnations, a few double-crosses, a near-hanging, and a sardonically happy ending. The satire had targets a mile wide, perhaps the broadest being the notable Whig politician Robert Walpole, and the entertainment managed to stay just this side of the censors and the libel courts. It was witty enough in its savagery that many of its targets seemed to take it all as good sport, laughing with the rest of the audience as they were being lampooned.

Scot Crandal (Mack) and Emily Zahniser (Lucy). Opera Theater Oregon "The Beggar's Opera," coming in October 2009. Photo credit: Katie Taylor, Opera Theater OregonSwift and Pope seem good midwives, or perhaps godfathers, for The Beggar’s Opera, which echoes the incisive mockery and shocking entertainment value of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. In addition, Gay’s opera had songs69 familiar tunes given new lyrics that sometimes, to the delight of London crowds, seemed scooped fresh from the gutter.

And it was topical. The allusions flew as fast and thick as anything on The Daily Show, and often with a lot more bite.

Which is where Stephen Marc Beaudoin comes in.

Beaudoin, a young singer and writer who hit town from Boston a few years ago with a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a ton of ambition, promptly stirred up a storm with a string of sometimes scathing performance reviews in Willamette Week, Just Out and The Mercury. To some he was the devil. To others he was the voice of truth.

Either way, he hasn’t played it safe. He also performs in Portland frequently, giving his critics plenty of chances to take their own shots. (He performs well enough that those shots generally misfire.) And starting Thursday, the audaciously hellzapoppin Opera Theater Oregon presents his new, freewheeling version of The Beggar’s Opera, which he has adapted and directed, and which has a new score by Michael Herrman of the band Buoy LaRue. It opens at the Someday Lounge in Old Town and later transfers to The Woods, an old funeral parlor turned music hall in Sellwood.

Beaudoin’s Beggar’s Opera liberally updates the script, setting the action in modern-day Portland and shifting the barbs to familiar Portland targets. You’ll see a homeless camp, and a polyamorous pop star, and crudely mimed couplings, and a shifty old bawd who runs a chain of porn shops by night and is a religious nut by day. There’ll be references to teen-age legislative intern Beau Breedlove and the tax-chomping white elephant Wapato Jail.

Scot Crandal (Mack) and Alexis Moore Eytinge (Susie). Opera Theater Oregon "The Beggar's Opera," coming in October 2009. Photo credit: Katie Taylor, Opera Theater Oregon

Scot Crandal (Mack) and Alexis Moore Eytinge (Susie) in “The Beggar’s Opera.” Photo: Katie Taylor, Opera Theater Oregon

Will it seem sophomoric or spot-on? The proof of this pudding will be in the performance. But John Gay would have approved, at least in concept. After all, he wrote a topical satire. And it’s not as if Gay’s opera hasn’t been adapted several times before, most famously in 1928 by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as The Threepenny Opera, a radically rethought version that kept the names of characters such as Macheath, Polly Peachum, Jenny Diver and Sukey Tawdrey, and which these days is far better-known than the original.

The great Americana singer and guitarist Dave Van Ronk once recorded a scratchy, coarse and utterly astonishing version of Mack the Knife with a kickass pickup band called the Ragtime Jug Stompers, and remarked afterward that if Brecht and Weill had been aware of the form, they’d have scored the entire Threepenny Opera for jug band. He was talking about the need to not be pretty — to find what Beaudoin calls the “beautifully disgusting” core of the play — and while Beaudoin has cast some fine voices for his Beggar’s Opera, he also wants that edge. “We’re not going to do this operatic, Benjamin Britten style,” he says.

And he’s licking his chops to give Portland a chop in the lips. A lover’s chops, if you will: True satire springs from a zeal to reform.

“This city is obviously ripe for satire,” Beaudoin said over coffee one late afternoon last week before rehearsal. “It’s taken itself seriously for far too long.”

He considered Portland’s penchant for caution and uniformity and keeping any true conflict under the surface, and then he added: “I want to preserve this city, too, but I also want to kick it in the face a few times. That would be doing it a real service.”

Beaudoin’s been working on this project for a year — “one long, agonizing, exhilarating year” — and right at the start he consulted Mead Hunter, the guru of play development in Portland.

“I said, ‘I’ve been commissioned to do this. Help!’ And he said, ‘Let’s go have tea.'”

The tea must have helped. Beaudoin found a form to fit his function, and a lot of it he picked up straight from Gay. “I wanted to keep some of the same ideas as Gay, and some of the same plot points,” he said.

Although Herrman’s music is much more contemporary, it follows Gay’s lead, too. “Michael and I decided we wanted to keep some of the best of the original songs,” Beaudoin said. “A tune that is simple and memorable is simple and memorable for ever and ever.” They also use Gay’s song structures: “If you have a structure like that in place, it really frees you up.”

At rehearsal that night in the back room of Sherman Clay Pianos, the evidence of all this work was starting to come together. There was suitably seedy drama in the acting, and stage-savvy singing that carried its message simply and directly. A group cohesion was beginning to develop, an understanding that in this musical the beauty of the music rides roughshod. You could hear it, even, in the vocal warmups, which rumbled upward like a grand cacophany: a yowl and screech, but a yowl and screech with resonance.

For Beaudoin, who is excited and nervous and calm all at once, opening night can’t come quick enough. “I’m turning 30 the day before we open, so, this is … what it is,” he said wryly, and laughed.

He sounded like he thinks he’s running out of time.