Love in the Age of Therapy

Keith Gallasch

The middle class, male mid-life crisis is at the dead heart of this new opera from playwright and novelist Joanna Murray-Smith and composer Paul Grabowsky. The friends Edward and Roger no longer love and admire themselves, and their wives’ affections and care for them are no solace. We learn little of these men’s lives, personalities and feelings, and even less about the other characters in Love in the Age of Therapy. The bland wives, Alice and Grace, only become interesting in Act II when new loves take them from their husbands and they are allowed to indulge in romance, lust, hypocrisy and, in the case of Grace the therapist, seriously unethical behaviour. Edward and Alice’s daughter Rebecca, loved by Rory, a radical young poet, and adored by her godfather Roger, is barely realised at all. Rory only adds up to the cliches he mouths, sounding more like someone from the 1970s than the first decade of the 21st century, an indication of how just out of touch this work is.

But all is not lost. Many passable and sometimes good operas have been written to execrable libretti. In this case Grabowksy’s rampant and fluent polystylism (which he calls “avant lounge”) kickstarts the heart of the work and engenders distinctive voices and hints at possibly complex personalities, and the singers rise to the occasion. While the text relies enormously on abstraction and aphorising (nothing Wildean to report, I’m afraid), the music is richly textured, highly animated and framed with a moody, cosmopolitan jazziness. There’s care not to mock characters or to simply parody musical styles. When, a la Puccini, George sings his love to Rebecca, there’s pathos but not bathos, and great commitment in the singing; or when Edward, pressured by Alice, has his first session with Grace, the music is an anxious, restrained, steely shimmer that refuses to dramatise what is already evident. However, the angular, wobbly bebop trumpeting that follows is a bold move that lifts into the open the tension surrounding Edward’s potential release. The music of Love in the Age of Therapy is energising, the sometimes jazz-based phrasing of the libretto undoing the awkwardness and banalities of everyday dialogue (few composers past Britten have managed this) or Murray-Smith’s dogged impulse to aphorise–”Marriage is the art of irony”; “We forfeit the wilderness of passion/For the white picket fence of affection”; Alice: “How do you teach a child what love is?” Edward: “Love them well./Eventually they will recognise the truth/Of its absence”; and so on and on.

There is one other character in this opera, Henry. He lives on the street wearing an old greatcoat and with his possessions in a supermarket trolley. He’s an ironic observer of the lives of the well-to-do middle class: exactly how he sees into their lives is not entered into. He’s a mere device performed with a gruff and engaging physical vigour and musical mock-baroque verve. He’s funny, some of his observations are acerbic, but why is he there at all? The pretensions of the characters are already gently undercut by everything they themselves say. Henry has little to add. There’s also something terribly old-fashioned, cliched, even offensive, about this fantasy of the insightful outsider (homeless or savant or mad).

Halfway into Act II, the work becomes more interesting, even engaging, thanks to the accleration of plot, the intensification of the comedy of sudden reversals (Lyndon Terracini as the irascible Edward showing fine comic mettle), the acuity of Richard Greager’s realisation of Roger and the rapid interplay of sung lines. I felt a lightening of the burden of the ponderous unfolding of Act I. Judiciously edited, Love in the Age of Therapy could make a better, long one act opera.

Also ponderous, Dan Potra’s set represents a monumental middle class bunker (at odds with the several references to the, surely metaphorical, white picket fences in the libretto), appropriately stark and vacuous. Its walls and windows double as screens revealing shots of traffic, skylines and trees. It’s all nicely done but, a few moments suggesting subjective states aside, achieves very little beyond setting mood and background (a predictable mainstream response to the potential of new media).

Love in the Age of Therapy is a cosy bourgeois entertainment, its judgment of its subjects just too kind. There is nothing unfamiliar in their world–they never encounter the likes of Henry. The strangers they meet are themselves until they renew their lives by shuffling relationships: Edward pairs with therapist, Grace (wife of Roger), Alice (wife of Edward) with her daughter’s Rory, daughter Rebecca with her godfather, Roger. One of Henry’s few worthwhile barbs is a comment on the middle class confidence with which they’ve done all this, “This bunch could reorder the seasons/Given half a chance!” Other lines, like “Whoever thought swinging went out in the 70s/Had better think again” are less bracing.

In her introductory note in the program, Joanna Murray-Smith writes that “contemporary culture has diminished the glory and elegance of love, of true love”, but Love in the Age of Therapy itself does little for love other than to intone the word at every turn. The opera facilely abandons all old loves en masse for new. Yes, the characters get another chance at life, but is this enough, especially for a comedy that self-consciously wears Shakespeare and Mozart on its sleeve? There is nothing here to suggest the disturbing complexities of the same playwright’s Nightfall. Musically, Love in the Age of Therapy is a treat, assured, beautifully and distinctively orchestrated even if its many referencings occasionally threaten to overwhelm the sense of a singular and memorable voice that wittily and dramatically fuses and juxtaposes disparate musical languages. If nothing else, Love in the Age of Therapy has given Paul Grabowsky the opportunity to ably compose for dialogue after working on the one man opera, The Mercenary.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002