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Taking a Chance on 'Sophie's Choice'

Composer Nicholas Maw, on the set of the Washington National Opera production, which premieres tomorrow.
Composer Nicholas Maw, on the set of the Washington National Opera production, which premieres tomorrow. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

The opera's odyssey began in the early 1990s, when Maw (who now lives in Takoma Park and teaches at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory) stumbled across the 1982 film of the story, renting it one night on the advice of a friend.

"I was stunned by it," he recalls. "I thought it was a remarkable subject matter, and one which was still so important to us as one of the great horrors and tragedies of the 20th century. It immediately filled me with passion with the idea of writing an opera."

The inspiration came as something of a shock. Maw has been one of Britain's most respected and thoughtful composers for decades, writing in an expressive, accessible style ("my music is very much within the romantic code," he says), and he'd already written two well-received operas. Unpleasant experiences getting them produced in Europe, though, had soured him on the whole genre.

"Often, when opera companies are doing an opera by a living composer, they immediately regard it as theirs -- it's not the composer's anymore," he explains with a slight grimace. "I didn't want to be involved with writing operas again."

But "Sophie's Choice" hit him so hard that he began sketching out a dramatic treatment, eventually sending it to Styron himself and inviting him do the libretto. The novelist declined. "He said, 'I'll leave it to you,' " says Maw. "So I decided to write the libretto myself."

It was a bold but risky decision. While "Sophie's Choice" is a gripping novel, it's also subtly structured and breathtakingly complex. Things are rarely what they seem, and the ground shifts constantly underfoot. In fact, it's those shifts that propel the drama forward. The line between Brooklyn and Auschwitz shimmers and dissolves, ribald comedy alternates with vicious cruelty, and as Sophie's lies and delusions crumble around her, it's never clear whether she's a hapless victim -- or deeply complicit in the most profound evil of the century.

That ambiguity makes the book (and Sophie herself) fascinating, but it also means that reworking "Sophie's Choice" for the musical stage would be a challenge for even the most experienced dramaturge. As a neophyte, Maw took a cautious, almost reverential approach to the text.

He clung tightly to the book's structure, chopping most of the humor ("I just took those parts which are very much related to the subject matter," he says) and using almost nothing but Styron's original words.

The result, some critics have suggested, is less an opera than a "sung novel." While that may have been true for the original production, Bothe insists that the new, streamlined version has punched up the stage drama, while giving the music more room to express the crucial psychological drama.

And that may be its saving grace. The opera's score (as heard in rehearsal last week) is complex. It is romantic and at times almost expressionist in style. At turns playful, brutal, mysterious and explosive, the music has elegant torrents of passage work in the winds, and vocal writing that attempts to recapture the love, rage and agony that are the lifeblood of Styron's novel.

"It's very dark, restless music," Alsop says. "Paradoxical, enigmatic, ambiguous -- one is slightly uncomfortable the whole time. The dramatic moments are very dramatic, and they're very lush -- almost cinematic, in a way. But it's not a sentimental piece at all, and that's important -- it doesn't treat any dimension of this story in a trite or simplistic way."

With "Sophie's" American premiere a day away, Maw is confident. It's a "very American" story, he says, and the subject of the Holocaust is compelling and still relevant. And perhaps most important, the story, for all its tragedy, is a story about the redemptive power of a great and passionate love.

And for Maw, that's the key. "If you're going to write an opera, it has to include passion," says Maw. "Otherwise," he adds softly, "it's not opera."

Sophie's Choice by the Washington National Opera is at the Kennedy Center Sept. 21, 24, 27, 30 and Oct. 5 and 9. For more information call 202-295-2400.or visit http://www.dc-opera.org .


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