When I first told Tony Earley about my idea to turn his short story “Charlotte” into a one-act opera his response was concise and immediate. He said, “I always thought that story should be an opera.”As a story that examines the nature of love through the unlikely lens of professional wrestling and its fans, “Charlotte” may not seem like the typical subject matter for an opera, but Tony’s story about the fictional Southeastern Wrestling Alliance is definitely operatic in its scope. With larger than life characters like rival wrestlers Bob Noxious and Lord Poetry, Rockin’ Robbie Frazier (Charlotte’s most popular wrestler), and Darling Donnis (The Prize Beyond Any Belt) the story has no problems raising its fundamental question—whether there really is any such thing as love—on a scale that is simultaneously grand and brutal. But what ultimately brings the story down to a very personal level are the fans, represented by the Everyman bartender and his girlfriend Starla. While Lord Poetry and Bob Noxious battle for the affections of Darling Donnis, the bartender and Starla wrestle about love. He wants her to admit she loves him, but Starla doesn’t believe in love; she believes in chemistry, in German cars, and being able to eat out whenever she wants. The meta-narrative (mega-narrative?) of Raw Animal Magnetism vs. True Love represented by the wrestlers is played out intimately and poignantly in the conflict between the bartender and Starla, who root for opposite sides during the Final Battle for Love, the last, decisive wrestling match between Lord Poetry and Bob Noxious before the SWA (which has been sold to Ted Turner) relocates to Atlanta. As it turns out, The Final Battle for Love is also a catchy title for an opera.
That initial conversation with Tony was around 1999 and it was the beginning of a long period of doing everything but turning “Charlotte” into an opera. I worked on it from time to time, adapting the libretto from the story, occasionally sketching some melodies, but mostly I was working on other projects. Then, around 2007, all the various threads began to come together, and by summer’s end I had sketched out the basic narrative. What had emerged musically was a pretty strong departure from anything I had ever written. I had known from the beginning that this opera would combine different genres; if you have a character whose name is Rockin’ Robbie Frazier you pretty much have to incorporate some rock ‘n roll, and Lord Poetry has to have a bring-down-the-house tenor aria. Ultimately, though it was the language of Tony’s story, in and of itself so filled with music, that helped me decide on an overall approach: baroque oratorio. Obviously. These lines from Big Bill Boscoe the Ringside Announcer were particularly influential in my decision to go “neo” with large chunks of the score:
“Oh Ladies and Gentlemen and Wrestling Fans
I hope you are ready to hold onto your seats.
Because the earth is going to shake
And the ground is going to split open
And hellfire will pour out of the primordial darkness
In a holocaust of pure wrestling fury.”
At some point I began hearing that pseudo-biblical language as a parody of (or maybe an homage to) Handel’s “Thus saith the Lord” from The Messiah. Eventually, it occurred to me that oratorios, cantatas, and passions were models for how to cope with large chunks of prose, which was in fact, the task I’d set for myself. I started thinking of the opera as a hybrid of all these different baroque forms with the Everyman Narrator functioning much as the evangelist would in a passion. The scenes fell into place after that epiphany—loving parodies of baroque favorites mixed with forays into rock, R&B, and metal. Recitatives, often complete with harpsichord, provided the transitions from one scene to the next. Sometimes the different genres combined and collided, especially toward the end. Darling Donnis’ mad scene is a sort of mashup of Vivaldi, Pink Floyd, and Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. In retrospect, I can see how the characters in the story drove the choice of what genre to evoke when, but baroque oratorio/passion became the frame tying all the disparate stylistic elements together.
Having spent several years of my life with these characters, I feel like I know them, like they are my friends (even Bob Noxious). It’s an amazing experience to be so gripped by a narrative that you feel genuinely compelled to do something with it creatively, and in the end it’s the story that continues to speak to me, because no matter how outlandish it gets, Charlotte/FBL is always driving toward serious reflection on human relationships. And thanks to Tony Earley’s masterful storytelling, it does so without every falling into smugness or irony. In a passage from Earley’s Somehow Form or Family: Stories That are Mostly True, he writes powerfully about how TV shows became a stabilizing factor during his childhood. Watching wrestling on Saturday mornings was part of his routine during a time of family upheaval.
“Every Saturday before he went to work, Daddy left word that I was to cut the grass before he got home. I stayed in bed until lunch. Shelly came into my room and said, “You better get up.” I flipped her the bird. I got up in time to watch professional wrestling on Channel 3. I hated the bad guys. They did not fight fair. They hid brass knuckles in their trunks and beat the good guys until they bled. They won too often.”
This passage provides some valuable insight into how Earley approaches the characters in “Charlotte”. He takes them dead seriously and is never slumming. He knows, from his own experiences, that the spectacle of the Southeastern Wrestling Alliance provides the fans with a interpretive framework for theirs.
I finished composing The Final Battle for Love in 2008 and then turned my attention to jousting with the windmill of getting an opera performed. After a few requisite rejections I decided to make a demo of the Final Battle with live singers performing their parts over the sampler mockup. There is no underestimating the extent to which having USDA Organic vocalists helps put across the idea of the opera, and the process of recording a lot wonderful singers gave me an opportunity find out how my vocal writing was actually working.
In December of 2009 I got word from the Virginia Arts Festival that I’d been accepted as a Composer Fellow with the John Duffy Composers Institute based on submission of two scenes from Final Battle. Excerpts from the opera were premiered on June 6, 2010 at the Virginia Arts Festival as part of the Masterworks in the Making program.
In 2012, I had the privilege of going back to the Duffy Institute as a Returning Fellow to have scenes from Final Battle presented in a concert setting with an orchestra made up of members of the Virginia Symphony. This was a really satisfying experience where I could hear for myself that the orchestration worked well and get great feedback on the progress of the work.
In June of 2016, Final Battle received its first full production by Thompson Street Opera (no relation) in Louisville, Kentucky. I knew I was in for a great experience when even the rehearsals were receiving solid reviews, and that momentum carried through three stellar performances. A barebones production with only piano and minimal sets, the insightful, resourceful direction of Katie Nix combined with the cast’s incredible musicianship and (literally and figuratively) no-holds-barred acting to make a small production play as epic. One reviewer commented that “The pseudo-wrestling scenes alone were, by themselves, almost worth the price of admission.”
Barely 6 months from the premiere, Thompson Street Opera Company (the company has relocated to Chicago) is producing FBL again. There will be four shows from January 19–22, 2017 at the Raven Theater, West Stage. This time we’re going to have strings (a quartet) and drums, so we’re getting closer to the full orchestration, so there’s a lot to be excited about. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, you’ve gotta come to hear it! Tickets are on sale now and there’s an IndieGoGo Campaign to help defray some of the costs. Please buy a ticket and/or make a donation today!