Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, his extraordinary life, impact, and art, his influence on many incredible historical figures, and his incredible success despite the prejudice he faced throughout his life has been the core inspiration for this concept.
Bologne’s life was simply remarkable. While The Anonymous Lover has gallant charm, romance, and lighthearted themes of love typical of French culture, I cannot help but see him through each note and I cannot help wondering how much of himself is present through the opera (he himself was forbidden to marry, etc.).
This fascination for the composer, his origins, his existence, and his fight to carve out his place in our world is highly influential in the choice of this presentation. Another intriguing aspect is the Playwright herself—what was their working relationship, and how did they collaborate considering the challenges both faced to find equality in their time?
Both had remarkable existences that need to be presented in the concept. Of course, Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, accurately and exquisitely portrays “la danse amoureuse,” the back and forth, the insecurities, the chase and the “waiting to be chased” of the amorous game we can all relate to. All of that being said, it is not the beauty of the music nor the joyful and witty libretto that intrigues me most here, but very much the source of their creation—these two fascinating historical characters.
Our enthusiastic team, Costume Designer Ari Fulton, Set Designer Stephan Moravski, Lighting Designer Mary Shabatura, and I hope to offer an opportunity to celebrate Joseph Bologne’s life and origins through the piece by presenting an island very much inspired from 18th century paintings of Guadalupe, the composer’s birthplace. We would like to invite the audience to travel not only to the time period of the composer, but beyond his life as a Frenchman and to the land of his origins. Dramaturg Harrison David Rivers joined our team to provide modern relevance to the text while respecting the original libretto.
Most importantly, we realized that his work offers us an opportunity to invite a diverse cast. Like with the musical Hamilton, we believe that the question of diversity is enhanced when in period costumes. In this particular 18th century island setting, diversity on stage would actually not be anachronistic, as people from all ethnical backgrounds were present and it is reported that many had successful businesses as well. We want to show that despite the prejudice that existed, people from diverse origins were thriving.
This concept offers an opportunity for bright colors and original Caribbean-inspired choreography alongside influence and accents of elegant 18th century France. We believe that abundance, joy, colors, love, and escape to other times and lands will be healing, needed, and important especially in the times we are all living.
As another homage to Joseph Bologne’s fame and acclaim at the time: we want to invite the audience to smile at the short fencing sequence in the 1st duet of the opera and added violin cadenza in the overture. Bologne was known as a remarkable technical fencer and virtuoso violinist, among other talents. We are also starting the opera with the traditional French trois coups with the desire to invite audiences to travel with us to 18th century France. In theatre, les trois coups (the three blows) are hit on the floor of the stage with a rod called brigadier, just at the start of a performance in order to get the attention of the public and crew. There are, in total, 12 blows representing the 12 apostles, 9 rapid blows, and 3 final, slower blows representing the queen, the king, and the audience.
This particular vision for the sets and costumes borrowed the silhouettes of the fashion seen in Guadeloupe at that time, with bits of anachronism and modernity, aiding in the relatability of the work. The opera and it’s timeless love story could be set in any time period, but because we are so highly inspired by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, we opted for 18th century flair.
We convey through the black details on the costume of Leontine the idea that she is exiting a period of mourning, a more present notion in the French text. We proposed a tweak in perception through a simple stage blocking and give the character of Leontine awareness of the Valcour’s “secret” from the start of the opera, where she secretly witnesses the first duet between Valcour and Ophémon (who we dressed with fabrics from diverse part of the world such as Marocco, India, China…little wink to the fascination this time period had for esoterism, new sciences and travels).
This tweak is a step away from the original French text, allowing her to know his efforts. This changes the playfulness between the characters, offers equality to both characters (she is not manipulated by a man, he is equally manipulated), and offers another stake for humor and humanity. It also offers the possibility for another level of sarcasm, intrigue, and “Frenchness,” while allowing the characters to be very sincere at moments and very vulnerable at others. We also tweak the importance of the character of Dorothée and Ophémon who now are also “maitres d’oeuvres” a bit like the duo “Despina/Alfonso” in Così fan tutte by Mozart.
Another unique decision made for this Minnesota Opera production was to add two arias and an additional line in a trio in the second act for the character of Dorothée. Bologne originally wrote this character as a spoken one for his patron, Madame de Montesson, who welcomed the creation of the opera at her “hotel particulier.” Stéphanie Félicitée de Genlis, the author of the play, was the niece of Madame de Montesson and a dear friend of Bologne, but not the librettist as François-Georges Fouques Deshayes, Desfontaines was. These three “creatives” involved in l’Amant Anonyme are represented in the portraits our audience will see on stage.
We are rectifying finally what should have been rectified a long time ago by creating equal opportunities to all. In our quest for justice, we are also reminded that in some times and places, those from diverse backgrounds did enjoy some measure of success. Despite pervasive limitations (for example, restrictions on what clothing colors were allowed for different groups), we can see through works such as The Anonymous Lover an example of great resilience and true excellence. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is one of these examples.