This month, Indianapolis Opera debuts new work by Kurt Vonnegut—but don’t go picturing sopranos singing Slaughterhouse-Five banter just yet. The opera, which Vonnegut finished working on just weeks before his death in 2007, is an adaptation of Happy Birthday, Wanda June, his little-known Vietnam War protest play from 1970s. With music by Richard Auldon Clark and a libretto by the writer himself, the opera premieres on September 16 during Indiana’s bicentennial celebrations.
For those in the know, the Hoosier State also happens to be Vonnegut’s complicated birthplace. And though he's best remembered as a novelist, it was his idea to adapt Happy Birthday, Wanda June into an opera. “He thought music would solve the problems that the play had,” Clark tells The Creators Project. “It would reflect feelings and emotions and would characterize these people in ways that words could not. I thought that was very profound coming from a literary man.” Vonnegut never heard a note of the score—he passed away before Clark began composing—but while handing off the libretto, the author blessed his collaborator with musical autonomy, even the power to cut lines, as long as the words that stayed remained as written.
To convert Happy Birthday, Wanda June into an opera, conversations had to become one-sided soliloquies which could be sung as arias. “The biggest difference I’ve discovered between the play and the libretto is that Vonnegut did a really great job distilling its essence. It’s a protest piece for the Vietnam War, pitting pacifism versus this almost Hemingway-esque stance on what a man is and should be. As a play, it’s very much a piece of its time. But as a libretto, I think what’s interesting is that it highlights larger issues, like American exceptionalism and imperialism,” Indianapolis Opera General Director Kevin Patterson tells us.
Inspired by the myth of Odysseus, the wandering seafarer whose decade-long journey home from the Trojan War is chronicled in The Odyssey, Happy Birthday, Wanda June centers on Harold Ryan, a macho ex-soldier lost in the Amazon rainforest for eight years. Assuming he is dead, his wife Penelope puts herself through college and takes a couple of suitors, including a pacifist named Dr. Norbert Woodley. Ryan’s return puts gender roles and morality on the line.Happy Birthday Wanda June Act I Prologue via IndyOperaChannel on YouTube
“Though set in the late 60s, its themes are resonant today. The main character is a sexist, racist, violent, wealthy man who believes he can do no wrong,” Clark says. “This is one of the things I love about Kurt Vonnegut. It doesn’t matter the date. What he’s talking about is fresh, real, and happening right now. That’s part of the anger he has. It’s like, ‘Folks, we’ve been talking about these issues since the beginning of time, and we still haven’t figured them out.’”
“[Harold Ryan] went away for eight years, and his whole world changed. He wants to live in the past. Oh, we haven’t heard that in America today. I mean, come on,” Patterson adds. “Vonnegut isn’t a writer who tries to cram ideas down your throat. He keeps at you. He wants you to think about things. He’s taking everything you think you believe and hold dear and basically advises you to turn all those beliefs upside down and look at them in a different way.”Transforming Wanda June Into An Opera via IndyOperaChannel on YouTube
To opera purists, passing up Verdi for Vonnegut may seem like a risk, but the Indianapolis Opera is betting against playing it safe. “We’re only going to produce the next generation of great opera if we create great opera,” Patterson says. “For every work that made it into the modern repertory, there are thousands that we don’t know about. To keep our repertoire growing, we have to engage in dialogue with our audiences.”
And few writers have a greater track record using art as a catalyst for conversation than Vonnegut. “With this opera, we have Vonnegut’s last statement. We have the essence of what he was thinking in the weeks leading up to his death, and I think it’s a fascinating commentary from him, from the grave, about what he thought the world was like and where it’s going,” Patterson says.Meeting Kurt Vonnegut via IndyOperaChannel on YouTube
You can learn more about Happy Birthday, Wanda June at the Indianapolis Opera and get your tickets here. The opera runs September 16 - 18 at the Schrott Center for the Arts in Indianapolis.