Anthony Davis’ Tania (1992) retells the saga of Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who in 1974 was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), only to emerge later as the machine-gun-toting Tania during a daring bank robbery that, along with the police raid and fire that killed five SLA members, was captured on camera and broadcast repeatedly on national television. Davis, along with librettist Michael John La Chiusa have refashioned these events into a highly symbolist dramaturgy bursting with social/political commentary (though, thankfully, the agitprop is confined to the SLA members). Davis’ score, based in both jazz and classical traditions (with jazz predominating), covers a of range of styles, from straight-ahead blues (Act 1’s duet “And the funk goes this way”) to be-bop and modern avant-garde (featuring some wicked solo work from the instrumentalists). The vocal line varies from tuneful and lyrical (Patty’s aria “Once upon a time”, reminiscent of Bernstein’s late style) to quirkily disjointed and atonal, while the text is written in a quasi-poetic style, with much line repetition.
The scenario is comprised of two mirror-image acts. In Act 1 we meet Patty, her husband, and parents, whose facile, privileged existence is lampooned in inane bedroom discussions on the merits of crackers. Patty’s chief concern is who will play her in “the movie of the story of my life”, before she is lured into “closetland” by the militant Cinque, whereupon she is raped and subjected to intense brainwashing by the other SLA members. Act 2 depicts Patty’s emergence from the closet as Tania, where she confronts her husband and her parents (now in the personages of Betty Ford and Fidel Castro). The TV news camera broadcasts live Tania’s criminal behavior and violent demise (she returns to the closet, which is now a raging inferno as her cohorts chant “come back to the rage!”) But it is Tania who has perished, not Patty, and as she resumes her blasé and cracker-obsessed life, the opera ends as it began.
The performers were well chosen for their roles. Cynthia Aaronson-Davis is thoroughly convincing both as Patty the vapid waif, and Tania, the venom-spouting revolutionary. As Cinque, Avery Brooks, known to the general public for his portrayal of Captain Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, presents a rich baritone voice to go along with his stern and stoic acting style. Tenor Thomas Young brings a wry irony (as well as solid singing) to the dual roles of Dad and Fidel. David Lee Brewer does a tragic/comic turn as Patty’s ineffectual husband. Conductor Rand Steiger leads Episteme, an ensemble of crack jazz musicians, in a powerful realization of the orchestral score. Koch’s recording sets the performers in what sounds like a large, empty hall.
Readers should take note that the dialogue contains a good deal of incendiary rhetoric, some of it profane to the point of offensiveness (are all those scatological references to poodles really necessary?). It’s a good bet that unless you’re a gangsta rap fan, you’ve probably never heard the “f” word used so many times in a musical setting (you most certainly haven’t heard it sung with such beauty of tone). Still, all this adds an element of visceral realism, which perhaps fulfills the intent of the authors. Wherever you sit vis-à-vis the work’s politics, or the boundaries of good taste in art, Davis’ and La Chiusa’s Tania is an experience you won’t soon forget.