‘Drugsong’ crosses new thresholds in stage performance

Drugsong’s nurse offers a special potion that leads to a transcendent, operatic scene within the play. Photo courtesy of the artist. Drugsong’s nurse offers a special potion that leads to a transcendent, operatic scene within the play. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A mysterious woman named Iz arrives at a sanatorium-cum-medical spa, completely mute. She’s brought in by her husband who explains that one night, while putting their son down to sleep, Iz stopped singing mid-lullaby and hasn’t uttered a word since. Everyone at the sanatorium/spa finds Iz—and her silence—compelling.

So begins Drugsong, theater and performance artist Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell’s latest work, an opera within a play created in collaboration with Victory Hall Opera.


Brooks Hall, UVA

June 16, 18, 22 and 24

Drugsong was inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1903 novella Tristan—which references Richard Wagner’s classic 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde—and is meant, like all VHO productions, “to give people new avenues, new doorways into opera,” says the group’s co-founder, artistic director and soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart, who plays the role of Iz.

“It’s not very often that opera is featured in literature in a…way that seems to hint at its power,” says Gordon-Stewart, and that idea was something that the opera wanted to explore on stage.

Gordon-Stewart and Victory Hall music director Brenda Patterson saw Hoyt Tidwell’s NO WAKE last spring and were captivated by the play’s surreal world and operatic nature (despite the fact that the actors were silent, Gordon-Stewart notes). The Victory Hall team commissioned a Mann-inspired piece from Hoyt Tidwell with a single parameter: Include a specific, 35-minute extended scene from Wagner’s opera.

Hoyt Tidwell built Drugsong around the opera scene, which is the second of the play’s three acts, and says she relied heavily on Mann’s story while also incorporating elements of the Celtic legend that originated the story centuries ago. She also gave more depth to some of the more secondary characters.

Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell teamed up with Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s Victory Hall Opera for Drugsong, an original creative work that offers an opera within a play. Photo by Ashley Florence.

In Drugsong, a poet named Tristan (played by internationally known heldentenor Corey Bix) is completely taken with Iz, writing verse for her despite the fact that she’s married. One day, while left alone, Tristan and Iz discover Wagner’s score to Tristan und Isolde and have what Gordon-Stewart describes as “a transcendent experience” while singing the score.

That entire experience is orchestrated by the Nurse (Kara McLane-Burke) who arranges for both Tristan and Iz to drink a concoction that, in the Celtic legend and the Wagner opera, is a love potion the two characters take accidentally. In older versions of the story, the nurse character feels guilt over what inadvertently happens between Tristan and Isolde, but in Drugsong, the nurse is directly responsible for the interaction between Tristan and Iz and her feelings about the whole thing are quite complex.

What happens after Tristan and Iz take the concoction and enter into the extended opera scene, we won’t say. But many of the themes at work in those canonical versions of the story hold relevance today, says Hoyt Tidwell, like “the unending conundrum for women who want to be mothers, wives, artists or who decide they won’t want to be one of those things, and what that means.” Drugsong also explores addiction and escapism, how modern addictions make it difficult “to face discomfort, to take action, to know what action to take,” Hoyt Tidwell says. And it looks closely at the artist’s role in society—is the artist genius? Indulgent? How can we know the difference?

“These people are trying to get out of a very deteriorating world,” says Hoyt Tidwell, a world that is “only about a hair more absurd than our own world” right now.

Hoyt Tidwell and Gordon-Stewart aren’t sure there’s been anything like Drugsong before now—there are occurrences of plays within plays, plays within operas, and even operas within operas. But an opera within a play is something new, and it’s unusual to have opera singers act in the play as well as sing in the opera—Gordon-Stewart is “pretty sure” that’s a first.

Audiences should arrive to Drugsong with an open and curious mind—you don’t need to have read Mann’s novel or seen Wagner’s opera to know what’s going on. Just be willing to give yourself over to a sort of intoxication that only performance can provide.

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