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Patience & Sarah: Something to Sing About
by Marie J. Kuda

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I've been around a long time, but it's been ages since this old Chicago dyke has been so excited about anything. I am counting down the days with the anticipation of that fabled lesbian "second date." You know the one, where you show up with a U-Haul and hope to begin your new life together. What I am so eagerly awaiting is the Chicago premiere of Paula Kimper and Wende Person's opera Patience & Sarah in August, part of Bailiwick's Pride 2000 Series.

I say "second date" because I already fell in love with the subject ladies when I first met them in Alma Routsong's book A Place For Us written under her nom de plume Isabel Miller in 1969. By now, almost everyone knows how her book was picked up by mainstream publisher, McGraw-Hill, re-titled Patience & Sarah and became a Literary Guild selection in 1972. For the next 25 years it appeared in a succession of paperback editions; it would fade from sight only to be called out again by lesbians demanding the title in the growing feminist book markets of the 1970s, '80s, and the early '90s.

Author Routsong signed over the rights to her story to Kimper and Person in 1993, three years before she died, saying she knew her "dear girls" would be in good hands. Her "girls" are two women who live in rural New England in the early 1800s—spinsters to the uninitiated, but our gaydar tells us, though the word "lesbian" is never used they will ( and do ) become lovers. The fact that the characters are based on the sketchy information about two real women of the period only enhances the romantic aura of their story. Routsong based Patience White on legendary folk artist Maryann Willson whose biblical allegories painted on wood were found from Mobile, Alabama to Canada. Sarah Dowling is her revered "farmerette companion" alluded to by a 19th century "Admirer of Art" who wrote: "These two maids left their home in the East with a romantic attachment for each other which continued until the death of the farmer maid. The artist was inconsolable..."

But now Patience & Sarah is an opera—an opera that ends not in death, but as the women are about to begin their lives together. Wende Persons libretto which lay fallow in a dresser drawer until fertilized by composer Kimper, was nurtured ( with the invaluable economic resources and creative aid of the American Opera Project ) into a bouncing three-act chamber piece. P&S is probably, the first women-loving-women themed opera in America. ( Subsequently, The First Lady's Lady about Eleanor Roosevelt & Lorena Hickok and an opera about Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas have had less exalted premieres. ) We no longer have to forgive ourselves for being thrilled by the duets of sopranos courting each other in "trouser role" masquerades. We now have two full-blooded women boldly singing out their love for each other.

Patience & Sarah premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival 1998 in New York City, was produced by the Denver Opera Company this June, and "excerpts were presented at the re-opening of the Stonington, Maine Opera House in July." Reviews in The New York Times, USA Today, Opera News, The New York Post, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, The Denver Post and GLBT press like the New York Blade News and LGNY have uniformly praised the opera. Newsday wrote: "If we can root for Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet, then why not Patience and Sarah?" Portions of the score have been compared by those critics to works by Menotti, Copeland, Barber, Ricard Strauss, or even Virgil Thompson who scored Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All.

Of course, in opera vocal casting is the key. Shifra Werch, director of the Bailiwick performance, assures us this cast is top notch. Werch, Artistic Director of Chicago's L'Opera Picola, most recently directed Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium and has a long list of credentials in the Midwest. Her "stellar cast has been featured in all of Chicago's operatic institutions." Christine Wagner and Julia Turner have the title roles supported by Terry L. Butcher, Sharon Greene, Lawrence Johnson, Sarah Martin, Cole Straton and Denise Tamburino. New York reviewers praised "an accessible lyrical score" with "soaring arias, a ballad or two" and "impressionistic harmonic touches." I look forward to the promised "heart grabbing power" of the final duet.

Elaine Valby and Lori Phillips of the original New York cast recorded the second act duet "I want to live"—Patience's plea to find a way to live and make art, in counterpoint to Sarah's wanting to live "nice and snug and free." This single track on CRI's ( Composers Recordings, Inc. ) Lesbian American Composers CD took 1999 GLAMA Awards in two categories—classical composition and performance.

The Midwest premiere of Patience & Sarah on the Mainstage runs Aug. 5-20, with evening performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday and a matinee on Sundays. For information or reservations, call Bailiwick Arts Center at ( 773 ) 883-1090. Outlines is inviting readers and friends to a preview performance on Friday, Aug. 4, including a reception with hors d'oeuvres and drinks at 6:30 p.m. and the performance at 7:30 p.m. for $35. The evening's proceeds are a benefit for one of Lambda Publications' deliverywomen who is living with cancer. Call Jean or Tracy at 773-871-7610 for information on the benefit tickets.

Copyright 2000 Marie J. Kuda. e-mail

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