Graham Greene: the Greene-ing of American opera

Every year as the Seattle Opera season approaches, I wax nostalgic about past performances, comparing them to current productions while, I hope, keeping an open mind and accepting changes and new concepts. Although I prefer my opera in the grand manner, I am happy to say I have attended every opening night since 1963 when my late husband and I arrived in this city. This year I eagerly await Oct. 15 and "The End of the Affair," a new opera based on a novel by Graham Greene, with music by Jake Heggie.

It's always a challenge for an opera company to present a new work, especially for the opening of the season. As usual, general director Speight Jenkins has risen to the challenge. After attending the world première of "The End of the Affair" by Houston Grand Opera in March 2004, he commented: "'The End of the Affair' astonished me first in the appropriateness and romantic quality of its music. It also gripped me with its drama from the beginning. This was a fascinating story, well told. The vocal lines were not easy, but they were superbly composed for the voices involved, and the minor characters all had interesting parts to play, vocally and histrionically."

Post-Houston there were changes. American composer Jake Heggie reworked the opera before the Madison Opera production in 2005, creating a new ending. Since then, Heggie has rearranged the order of Act I and doubled the number of strings in the orchestra from 14 to 28. These changes will be retained in the production presented at Seattle Opera; to quote Heggie, "Such are the variables of new works." Although the ending is not consistent with the novel, it is not inconsistent with Greene's interpretation.

Graham Greene was one of Britain's most acclaimed 20th-century authors. Born in Berkhamsted, Herts., and educated at Oxford, he joined the British Foreign Service, then went on to work as a newspaper editor, film critic, diplomat and playwright. He also wrote exciting spy stories. His works have inspired such notable films as "The Fallen Idol," "The Third Man," "Our Man in Havana" and "Travels With My Aunt." His serious novels carried strong religious and moral themes.

"The End of the Affair" was almost autobiographical, written in 1951 while Greene was having an extramarital affair with Lady Catherine Warston. The novel inspired two films, one in the '50s with Deborah Kerr, and one in 1999 starring Julianne Moore.

Set in London in 1946, just after the end of World War II, the story revolves around a pair of slightly upper-crust lovers and their torrid love affair, with flashbacks to the blitz of 1944. Sarah Miles is married to Henry, a rather dour civil servant but a devoted husband.

The story opens on a rainy night in London. Writer Maurice Bendrix encounters his friend Henry, who confides his suspicions of Sarah's infidelity. Flashback to 1944, during the V-1 air raids, as Maurice and Sarah make love.

A bomb explodes nearby, Maurice goes to investigate, a second explosion shatters the building - and Sarah, fearing Maurice dead, falls to her knees in prayer. Stunned upon discovering that he is not dead, she leaves abruptly with the words: "People believe in God all their lives and never see Him. Just because we don't see each other, love doesn't end. Remember, love never ends."

Actually, Sarah's prayer was a bargain with God to give up her adulterous relationship in exchange for her lover's survival. Mau-rice, unaware of Sarah's reason for leaving him, has been obsessed for two years with finding the answer. Hearing that Henry is considering hiring a private detective, Maurice offers to do it for him - to satisfy his own jealousy.

Enter Parkis and his young and ailing son, Lancelot, who set up surveillance on Sarah and are affected by her kindness. Parkis reports Sarah's frequent visit to a Mr. Smythe, a man with a disfiguring birthmark on his face. Parkis steals Sarah's diary, and Maurice now finally finds out why she left him - but it's too late. Sarah is terminally ill, and believes she must die to keep her promise with God.

After Sarah's death, miracles appear to occur. Smythe's birthmark disappears, young Lancelot is restored to perfect health, and everyone extols the goodness of Sarah, the glory of God and His miracles. Maurice, left alone in church, finds no miracles. He is angry with God for taking Sarah, but offers his first prayer and acknowledgment of something larger than himself, and leaves the church somehow a better man.

All this is set to beautiful music, with great sets and costumes, and talented singers performing in English with English captions (that should be interesting), creating what Speight Jenkins describes as "a powerful new American opera." Don't miss it.

Seattle Opera Guild's preview groups are presenting previews of the production at various venues. Locally, the Magnolia group will be holding its preview Sunday, Oct. 9, in Queen Anne. If you're interested, give me a call: 282-8161.

Incidentally, composer Heggie is coming to Seattle to see the production and will appear at several Seattle Opera events this month. He will be the guest of honor at "Opera Unabridged" on Oct. 15 at 10 a.m., at McCaw Hall. During this event, he will discuss how Greene's novel made the journey from page to stage. Tickets for this event are available by calling 389-7676.

"The End of the Affair" will be performed Oct. 15, 16 (matinee), 19, 22, 23, 25, 28 (matinee) and 29. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m.; matinees, at 2 p.m. Single-tickets range from $41 to $135. The Seattle Opera Ticket Office can be reached at 1-800-426-1619 or 206-389-7676, or via

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