Consider Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the Kim Kardashian of yesteryear.
In the mid-20th century, the wealthy socialite was considered one of the most prominent persons in Britain, a celebrity whose appearances and undertakings were followed by her social peers as well as lower classes. That celebrity status would backfire during her divorce proceedings in 1963, when her husband exposed evidence of affairs including Polaroid photographs of Campbell naked and performing sexual acts with men.
After that, the reputation of Campbell — who was dubbed the “Dirty Duchess” in the press — would be forever linked with that scandal. Even an opera about her life, Powder Her Face, was tarred with the same brush. Audiences at its 1995 premiere immediately fixated on its infamous “fellatio aria,” which the soprano playing the Duchess hums while simulating oral sex. Subsequent productions have presented the work as a “shock opera,” amplifying the scandal by emphasizing its nudity and debauchery at the Duchess’ expense.
Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director of Skylight Music Theatre, took a different approach when he and late director Sandra Bernhard approached the material in 2011 while he was running Houston’s Opera Vista company. They took a new look at the Duchess and told the story from her perspective — as a way to make his audience consider what our society does to women of celebrity. He’ll get a second chance to do so in Milwaukee, with new director Robin Guarino leading the way, and is excited to realize his shared vision on a radically bigger scale.
Composed by Thomas Adés with a libretto by Philip Hensher, Powder Her Face opens in the 1990s as the Duchess (Cassandra Black, reprising the role she played in 2011) is being evicted from her hotel due to not paying her bill. Throughout, the story jumps back in time to reveal how Campbell lost her powerful social position, with a Hotel Manager (Joseph Beutel), Electrician (Ben Robinson, also returning) and Maid (Kaleigh Rae Gamaché) playing multiple roles past and present.
In many productions, these flashback elements are played as farce. But Subbaraman says it was important to him, as well as Bernhard and Guarino (two of the only female directors to ever handle the production), that the Duchess’ liaisons and heartbreaks be treated seriously, and that the production treat her as a complex person who was not merely the figure depicted by the press and mocked by society.
Subbaraman says the fellatio scene is perhaps the best example of what they’re going for. While it’s usually depicted as an outlandish moment with lots of nudity and mocking of the Duchess, he says Hensher may have had a different, more nuanced interpretation — referring to the scene as “the ultimate silencing of women through sex.”
With that in mind, Subbaraman says, the Skylight’s production minimizes the shock value of the scene, leaving the Duchess a sympathetic figure. “That’s a sex act that people do,” he says. “It’s not as though it’s something we should run away from. … That one moment and the way that scene is treated completely changes the way we respond to her at the end of the opera, when she’s telling us about everything she’s lost.”
Subbaraman also believes their approach to Powder Her Face allows audiences to better appreciate the music of Adés, who he considers to be one of the most important composers living and working today. Adés is best known for his orchestral work, but Subbaraman thinks it’s easier for first-time listeners to engage with his complex work via stage productions because you can follow characters and plot as you listen.
“The music is probably some of the hardest written — it doesn’t sound that way necessarily all the time,” he says. “In an effort to create an improvisatory feel, he over-notates the music, so it’s incredibly rhythmic. Rhythms are constantly changing … that makes it a very difficult thing for everyone.”
Subbaraman says this staging won’t simply be a retread of his Houston production, even though Guarino was hand-picked by Bernhard before her death of a rare cancer in 2015. He says the Opera Vista production was incredibly low-budget, designed to make a splash specifically because they were able to pull it off despite limited resources — the cast had no permanent rehearsal space, Subbaraman put together the set himself, Black sewed her own costumes and three days before opening they were still checking thrift stores for mattresses.
The resources of the Skylight have allowed Subbaraman, Guarino and their team to take Bernhard’s original vision and make it even better than before, he says, with exemplary design elements (including the work of costume director and fashion designer César Galindo, last seen designing Cinderella in 2014) and the ability for the cast to explore these characters in a deeper way. “It’s a different production in its whole,” Subbaraman says.
And it’s an important one, because the problems illuminated by the Skylight’s production of Powder Her Face haven’t mysteriously vanished in the modern age. Shortly after starting rehearsals, Subbaraman stumbled across an article about rising movie star Jennifer Lawrence. It decreed that the young actor, less than a decade into her career, had already used up her time in the spotlight.
“She’s 25! She’s a brilliant actor! And suddenly she’s ‘over’?” he says. “We as a society tend to discard women of celebrity very easily, when they no longer amuse us in the way we expect them to. … That’s part of what we’re trying to talk about in the way we look at this show.”
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Powder Her Face runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or skylightmusictheatre.org. Due to explicit language and sexual subject matter, this production is recommended for mature audiences only.