Edgar Allan Poe's spooky short story The Fall of the House of Usher is well known to classic horror fans, but it probably isn't on the lists of LGBT readers who like to read between the lines of 19th-century literature for coded queer references or liaisons.
However, The Fall of the House of Usher as an opera is entirely a different matter.
According to Los Angeles-based out director Ken Cazan, the 1987 operatic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher by composer Philip Glass and librettist Arthur Yorinks makes an interpretive case that a once-unrequited same-sex love affair is central to Poe's classic story.
Windy City audiences will get a chance to see how much homoeroticism The Fall of the House of Usher can stand when Chicago Opera Theatre presents four performances of the work at Millennium Park's Harris Theater for Music and Dance starting Saturday, Feb. 23. The same production received largely rave reviews in California earlier this year at Long Beach Opera, the other company run by Chicago Opera Theater's new incoming general director and conductor Andreas Mitisek.
Now Cazan is not typically known for imposing extreme directorial interpretations on operatic works the way that many modern-day European opera productions often require pages and pages of director's notes in the program to explain the far-out concept onstage. Instead, Cazan likes to go to the sources of the works and to study the performance materials.
"Once I got the music and I read the libretto, I thought, 'Oh my!'" said Cazan during a telephone interview from California.
Poe's original short story involves a sickly bachelor named Roderick Usher, his deathly ill spinster sister, Madeline, and the male narrator named William who visits their ghostly mansion which is on the verge of both a familial and physical collapse.
Poe never goes into the exact detail about Roderick and the narrator's past relationship. Yet Cazan feels that Glass and Yorinks wanted to update the tale a bit by adding the gay angle and increasing the dramatic stakes.
"I tend to go with my first instincts on pieces and I did with this," Cazan said, noting that Roderick is described as being sensitive to everything, and that he's facing enormous pressure to continue the House of Usher by producing a male heira great difficulty if you're a homosexual.
There are also musical clues to this gay interpretation according to Cazan, particularly in Roderick's inciting letter-writing sequence (updated in this production to a desperate email) to William asking him to come and visit.
"It wraps up as the music starts to build to a crescendo, and (Roderick sings out to William) 'I need you!'" said Cazan, who also notes that William, too, sings about his apprehensive hopes for returned affections from Roderick.
Glass and Yorinks' decision to only give the sister one word to sing (an "ah") made Cazan decide not to leave her as a disembodied voice offstage, but to be a nearly omnipresent and hovering ghostly presence. Cazan also says Madeline could also potentially symbolize a feminine side of Roderick that he has long repressed due to social graces and family expectations.
Cazan is glad to once again return to Chicago Opera Theater, where he has previously directed works like the double bill of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with Erwartung, Shining Brow and two late Britten works: Death in Venice and Owen Wingrave.
But Cazan is eager to see if The Fall of the House of Usher will repeat the success that it had in California, especially since it's the same physical production and it features the same leading performers who will hopefully only have deepened their characterizations for the Chicago run.
"The response to this particular production out here has been overwhelmingly gratifying," Cazan said, adding that "people have come up to me at the theater in tears" going on about how moved they were by the work.
Chicago Opera Theater's production of The Fall of the House of Usher plays Millennium Park's Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, Wednesday, Feb. 27 and Friday, March 1, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 24. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 312-704-8414 or visit www.chicagooperatheater.org for more information.