By Margret Echeverria
I am very excited that the opera, Patience & Sarah, is returning to New York City for LGBT Pride Week. This time, I’m not missing it as I did when it premiered in 1998. I had the pleasure of talking with the composer of this opera, Paula Kimper this week.
“We decided to make a revival version that has a reduced orchestration so that we can do it wherever people really want to see it,” Kimper told me.
I admit, I read Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller when I was in college because it was supposed to be naughty. But in truth, it is a wholesome story of two women falling in love in nineteenth century Connecticut who, despite the meddling of their respective families, find the courage to break the traditions of their protestant roots and create a new life together in New York State. Patience is a painter and Sarah has a love for working the land and growing crops.
“Isabel Miller wrote of a universal coming of age . . . breaking from your parents and being yourself,” says Kimper.
The idea of making the novel into an opera started with a crush. Librettist, Wende Persons, fell hard for a discontented soprano in 1981. The soprano wanted to find a work that offered the opportunity to live inside a new character who was a lesbian like herself; a tall order for an opera even in this modern world.
“Patience & Sarah is a lesbian story of love and courage . . . there’s not your typical lesbian opera character who is a psycho killer.”
“Everyone is going to want to know … did Person’s win the heart of the soprano?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” Kimper laughed. “No she did not. It sat in a drawer until she met me. She said, ‘Oh, I have this libretto,’ and I said, Oh, I’m a composer . . . .’”
It was 1994 and as a romance began between them, Kimper and Persons found themselves talking more and more about the idea of a Patience & Sarah opera.
“At first, I really didn’t want to do an opera. I had never done an opera. I felt like it was too many notes! I didn’t really have the confidence to do it. But after a while, I realized that it really was a great story and very operatic.”
Kimper had what it took within her. She was raised Methodist near Syracuse New York. She drew upon the strong melodic forms of old hymns to compose original hymns for the opera. She created complex and sophisticated melodies for the character of Patience, the artist born into a wealthy family. Kimper found that simpler compositions paired well with the character of Sarah, raised by her father to dress and work like a boy on his farm. She worked to find appropriate musical keys for some characters, such as Sarah’s father, who sings melodies in B-natural to portray a gruff complicated man who is not just brutish, but is suffering a life of disappointment in which his very livelihood depends on what his community thinks of him.
Once the legal rights to the novel were obtained through normal channels, Kimper and Persons asked to meet the author, Alma Routsong, who wrote Patience & Sarah under the pen name, Isabel Miller. Routsong and her long-time companion met with the Kimper and Persons team several times.
“She called us the ‘little people,’” Kimper explained to me as Routsong was amused by the difference in sizes between the two couples.
Kimper called Routsong by her pen name throughout our interview.
I asked, “Did you embellish or create any new parts to the story for the opera, or did you stick closely to the novel?
“We did use some text from Isabel Miller’s other works. For instance, we used a line from the story A Dooryard Full of Flowers.” Kimper chucked here. “We spent time with Isabel and her partner at her house in Poughkeepsie where she had a beautiful dooryard full of flowers.”
The novel’s author fully approved of the project and was present to witness some performances of excerpts as the show was being work shopped, but did not live to see the full production.
“As it turns out, it takes about four years to write an opera,” said Kimper.
In 1994, Kimper and Persons had five key scenes and 25 minutes of music, the artistry of which compelled the American Opera Projects to give them a showcase. By 1996 a full draft was ready for further work shopping and this was reworked until it became the final work in 1998. Kimper said that feedback from the workshop audiences brought the end of the story to a different place than originally planned — a moment at which the characters of Patience and Sarah have left Connecticut for New York State and realize they have won their freedom from their old life and declare their love for one another. As in the novel, in first drafts of the opera, the story continued into the new life in New York. In today’s revival version, further changes were made; the orchestra has been reduced to just 10 instruments. The musicians are seven, three of whom double on these instruments so as to make the production more portable.
“We really get all the sound and all the colors that we need and I always find that it is really about the singers,” Kimper says.
As a child of 1970’s New Age influence, I was intrigued to discover that Kimper used an astrological element in the development of each character in the opera.
“The birthdays of both Patience and Sarah are revealed in the novel. Patience is an Aquarius and Sarah is a Leo,” Kimper reminded me.
Anyone steeped in the fun that is astrology knows that this theoretically makes for a hot match. It is very difficult to get out of bed with an Aquarius and the love of a Leo is fiercely loyal, which is lucky in this pairing because an Aquarius has no sense of the passage of time, often spends time alone and returns to her lover as though her love is stronger than ever.
“I went ahead and assigned the other characters astrological aspects as well,” Kimper explained.
The character of Martha, whom I remember as a big old tattle tale, had to of course be assigned the attributes of a Capricorn. Kimper was tickled to reveal this character development secret to me as most patrons of her work have never asked. I suspect it was the Libra in me that charmed it out of her.
I had to ask, “How is your love life now? Are you still collaborating with Wende Persons?”
“I’m married to someone else now,” Kimper said with genuine pleasure in her voice. “And we collaborate . . . I compose music and leave it on the piano. She sings and writes for that music …”
“Do you ever switch roles?” I wondered.
“Oh, no,” she said with surprise. “I can’t sing.”
This revival production promises to be a pleasure, but you only have two nights to see it during Pride Week in New York City. See and hear Patience & Sarah June 23 and 24 at 7pm with the new orchestration and singers, at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street in New York City. Nyoperafest.com. You can purchase tickets here.
Patience & Sarah Composed by Paula Kimper; Wende Persons, Librettist; Orchestra Manger, Rich Johnson
WITH Elsa Queron (Sarah), Nadia Patrella (Patience), Michael Kelly (Parson Peel), Chad Kranak (Edward White), Jessica Copland (Martha White), Duncan Hartman (Pa Dowling), Bryn Holdsworth (Rachel Dowling).