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Exploring ‘Doubt’ — a play, a film, and now an opera

Commissioned by Minnesota Opera as part of its seven-year, $7 million New Works Initiative, “Doubt” will open a two-weekend run Saturday at the Ordway Center.

In its third incarnation, “Doubt” becomes an opera.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera

The abuse of thousands of children at the hands of priests has made disturbing headlines in recent years, and not surprisingly, the subject has become the material for compelling drama, the most prominent instance of which has been “Doubt,” the play and subsequent film by John Patrick Shanley.

The central question Shanley poses is whether Sister Aloysius, principal of a Bronx parochial school in 1964, a time of abrupt change in the Roman Catholic Church, is correct in suspecting a popular young priest, Father Flynn, of getting too close to one of his students, the school’s first black pupil. The play’s deeper subject, however, along with issues of class and race, is doubt verses certainty.

“You haven’t the slightest proof of anything,” seethes Father Flynn when confronted by Sister Aloysius. “But I have my certainty,” she sneers. Shanley offers no easy answers. The climax of the story is ambiguous and unsettling. Much admired, the play earned both the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play in 2005, and the film version, released three years later, with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the main roles, was nominated for five Oscars.

And now, in its third incarnation, “Doubt” becomes an opera.

Keen interest in opera world

Commissioned by Minnesota Opera as part of its seven-year, $7 million New Works Initiative, “Doubt” will open a two-weekend run Saturday at the Ordway Center. Interest in the work  — with a score by Douglas J. Cuomo set to Shanley’s own libretto — is keen among opera producers and critics around the country (even in London), presumably because of Shanley’s renown as a playwright and screenwriter — and also because the company’s prior commission in the New Works program, “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell,  won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. Certainly the creators of the work, along with its director, Kevin Newbury, seem confident that the opera will present audiences with something provocative and new.

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“I think people are going to come in with their expectations, whatever they are, because they saw the play or the film or because they’ve seen neither, or because they went to a Catholic school – or they didn’t,” said Shanley, a lanky, much-younger-looking 62-year-old during a lunch break last week at the opera company’s offices in Minneapolis. “I feel confident that they’re going to come out saying ‘That’s not what I expected.’ I think they’re going to find things to enjoy and things that are going to make them a little uneasy, an unfinished feeling that’s going to spur further conversation, and I like that idea a lot.”

Newbury, who staged Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” the final entry in the company’s much-acclaimed Tudor trilogy earlier this season, said he has had trouble sleeping the past few nights – he keeps pondering the moral ambiguities of “Doubt.”  “Whenever people hear that I’m working on an operatic version of this story, they want to talk about it for half an hour,” he said.

Chance, no stranger to opera history, played a larger role than it normally does in the birth of this work. Cuomo is a native of Tucson, Ariz., who in his early years worked as a professional jazz guitarist. He later turned to composition and has produced a large body of work for the theater, for orchestra and chamber ensemble and for television (including the title theme for “Sex and the City”) and a one-act opera, “Arjuna’s Dilemma.” He got the idea for an opera version of “Doubt” from his wife, Sharon, who suggested it one day. He contacted Shanley and suggested a lunch with him. (They both live in the New York City area.). Shanley forgot about the meeting. “I didn’t really want to do the opera,” he said, laughing, “but I felt so guilty about missing the lunch that I agreed to it.”

Had seen just two operas

John Patrick Shanley
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
John Patrick Shanley

He wasn’t an opera fan, either. A former Marine and the son of an Irish immigrant father, Shanley had seen only two operas in his life: “La Boheme” and ‘Simon Boccanegra.” And the only reason he saw “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera one night was so he could write one of the scenes in “Moonstruck,” the movie that earned him an Oscar in 1987 for Best Screenplay, an award that boosted his career (and his fees) quite a few notches.

(His experience at the Met gave him the lines that have become the movie’s most-quoted scene. Our heroine, Loretta Castorini, played by Cher, leaves the opera house in tears over the plight of the consumptive little seamstress, Mimi: “That was so awful … and beautiful. I didn’t think she was going to die. I knew she was sick … I mean, she was coughing her brains out, and she had to keep singing!”)

With Shanley and Cuomo in agreement on the project, they met in New York in the autumn of 2011 with Newbury, who had come aboard as director. Newbury then assembled his production team — Robert Brill (sets), Paul Carey (costumes) and Japhy Weidman (lights) – who began the designs almost immediately. “We put the whole production together in about a year, which is short for a new opera,” Newbury said. Four workshops were to be held in Minneapolis over the next year.

Shanley and Cuomo began writing immediately as well. Normally in opera a libretto is completed before the music, or at least an act at a time. In this case, given the tight deadline, the two worked together on chunks of the piece, communicating via phone and e-mail and often collaborating at Shanley’s home in Brooklyn. Shanley: “Doug would score a scene or part of a scene, then he’d come over and plink it out on my piano and sing each note.” Cuomo: “And then once we started the workshops with actual singers and pianists playing the music, we could listen to it and accelerate the process.” 

All parties involved extol the workshops, which offer the creators a chance to see the work on its feet, so to speak, and to make major changes without the pressure of a formal rehearsal. 

Drew from the film and play

For the libretto Shanley drew from both the play and the film, which he also directed. Much of the film was shot in the neighborhood in the Bronx where he grew up, which allowed for special attention to visual – and historical – detail. 

In terms of design and staging, the opera will have more heightened theatrical moments than either the play or the film, Newbury said. “The play is much more naturalistic. The opera is more cinematic. One of my favorite images from the school that John attended is this amazing statue of the Virgin Mary that ostensibly is facing the streets to welcome people to the church. But if you’re in the garden, She has turned her back on you. It becomes an image of doubt itself facing away from these characters in their moment of crisis, with the leaves falling and the snow. This is an interesting period, 1964. It’s like a Bronx version of ‘Mad Men,’ but a little more repressed because we’re in church.”

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A relative of Shanley’s was molested by a priest. But Shanley never experienced that. It wasn’t, in other words, a burning obsession of his to write about this subject when all these incidents came to light. “No, I thought, ‘What took them so long?’ I mean, we all knew about the molesting when I was a kid. So I thought, ‘My God, you just found this out! Were you living in a paper bag?’ It’s incomprehensible.”

Ultimately he offers sympathy to Sister Aloysius. In what is probably the emotional center of the play – and the opera – she meets with Mrs. Miller, mother of the boy, and is startled to find that the mother takes a frankly matter-of-fact view of the possibly compromising relationship between Father Flynn and the boy.

“After that scene, Sister Aloysius’ view of the world is brought into question,” said Shanley. “She thought she knew what the answers were to any of the kids’ problems. She finds herself in a more complicated universe than she knew existed. …”

“I’m trying to play her so that she isn’t simply mean,” said Illinois-born soprano Christine Brewer. “Sister Aloysius doesn’t like change,” she said, “and there were big changes going on in the church in the ‘60s. She’s a teacher. Her main purpose is to protect the children. She’s tough with the kids in the classroom scenes, but it’s because she wants them to be responsible citizens and to know history and to know how to behave and be respectful.”

A teacher herself

Brewer was a teacher herself in a small town in Illinois. For her characterization, she draws on memories of a principal she had during her first years of teaching. “I was 21. I was a music teacher,” she said. “Then I was a substitute and taught everything, including algebra, for eight years. This principal would listen in on my classes, unbeknownst to me, then he’d call me into his office and chew me out. There’s a little bit of him in what I’m doing.” 

As for the rest of the cast, the renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a revered Carmen for this company back in the 1990s, will sing the part of Mrs. Miller, the role that Viola Davis played so memorably in the film version. Adriana Zabala will play Sister James, and baritone Matthew Worth will portray Father Flynn. Christopher Franklin will conduct.

The prolific Shanley is currently writing a film for the director Robert Zemeckis and is completing an evening of one-act plays that will be presented soon in New York. Though he is asked constantly to lift the veil on Father Flynn’s behavior and divulge whether the character is guilty of Sister Aloysius’ charges – her evidence, after all, is slim – he has always declined to say – or simply give his opinion. He says in his commentary to the film that he gave Philip Seymour Hoffman his own ‘back story’ on the character, and it was Hoffman’s choice whether to play it that way or not. “We never shared that with Meryl,” he adds. “I wanted to create a little paranoia there.”

Clearly, his real intention in the play, the film and now the opera, is staked in deeper ground, a consideration greater, and surely more profound, than “did he?” or “didn’t he?”

The character we never see

“The character in the room we never see is doubt itself,” he says in the commentary. “Who do I believe? What is the truth of this moment or that moment?  Will I ever be able to judge these people? Will I ever be able to put this to rest as a verdict? But, of course, life isn’t like that. We can never know what is in the heart and soul of another human being.

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“We can have our assumptions, our theories. Sometimes they may be very solid. But we can never know. An adult has to learn to live with that, to live with doubt as a natural part of the equation of life, to never give it up and to recognize that it’s an asset to leave a place in yourself open for discussion, for further thought, for further conclusions.”

“Doubt”: A Minnesota Opera premiere production. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26; Tuesday, Jan. 29; Thursday, Jan. 31; 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3. $20-$200. Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. For more information: 612-333-6669 or