Pittsburgh Opera's 'Rake's Progress' Bridges Distant Centuries

Apr 29, 2016

Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress premiered in 1951, one of the last major works of his neoclassical period. The renowned Russian composer had long since left behind the avant-garde style of his earlier works, like Firebird and The Rite of Spring, and moved toward a more conservative sound.

'The Gaming House' is Plate 6 of English artist William Hogarth's 1734 series of engravings, 'A Rake's Progress' -- the artwork on which Igor Stravinsky's 1951 opera 'The Rake's Progress' is based.
Credit William Hogarth / Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker said during this middle period of his career, Stravinsky looked to the past for inspiration.

“Stravinsky was, at that stage in his career, very interested in music of the Classical Period and trying to get away from the really dissonant and heavily rhythmic and bizarrely rhythmic Modernism that was coming to the fore just before and after the Second World War,” Walker said.

Walker and the Pittsburgh Opera are taking on the David Hockney production of the piece for the first time to close out their 2015-16 season.

The 20th Century Meets The 18th

The plot of The Rake’s Progress is based directly on a series of engravings the composer saw in a gallery, called A Rake’s Progress, created in the 1730s by English artist William Hogarth.

Both the opera and the engravings tell the tale of one Tom Rakewell, an 18th century everyman who’s played in the upcoming Pittsburgh production by tenor Alek Shrader.

“So he’s young, and he has a pretty good life, although he doesn’t realize how good he has it," Shrader said. "He always wants a little bit more, and the first thing that he says he wants, he wishes for money – and boom, he gets it.”

A dark figure called Nick Shadow appears, telling Tom that he’s inherited a fortune. From there, the opera depicts Tom’s downfall from purity to depravity as he blows his inheritance on brothels and booze.

The final plate of Hogarth's engravings depicts Tom Rakewell in Bedlam, a London insane asylum, after he is driven mad by the sinister Nick Shadow.
Credit William Hogarth / Wikimedia Commons

Maestro Walker said the scenes of the opera directly correlate to the Hogarth engravings.

“There is a wonderful bucolic scene in a garden that starts off the show; there is this really debauched scene in a whorehouse; there is a really strange scene when Tom Rakewell marries Baba the Turk, who is this very exotic, theatrical person; and then there is this graveyard scene where Tom and the Devil, Nick Shadow, come face-to-face and gamble for Tom’s soul,” Walker said.

Bringing Centuries-Old Engravings To Life

It may be that the way the Pittsburgh Opera tells the story that captures audiences’ imaginations the most. To the audience, each scene will look like a living engraving. They’ll be using the original costumes and sets designed by English artist David Hockney for a 1971 performance of the piece, which have been passed from city to city ever since. Just as Stravinsky did, Hockney decided to go straight back to the Hogarth engravings for inspiration.

“They tried to do period costumes, a period look in the furnishings and the décor, but with the modern artistic language of Hockney, but also incorporating the Hogarth engravings in cross-hatching all of the set and cross-hatching the costumes,” said Tara Kovach, the Pittsburgh Opera’s production director.

The actors in 'The Rake's Progress' will wear period clothing with a modern twist, such as this cross-hatched jabot with accents of green and red.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

The result is an almost eerie blend of black and white lines splashed with the vivid colors favored by Hockney during his pop art period.

“Though we are playing full-blooded, living characters, at times we will adopt gestures or poses that will represent the engravings themselves, so that you can see, ‘Oh, there’s that picture. They just made that picture,’” Shrader said.

While the music draws heavily from 18th century opera composers like Mozart and Handel, soprano Layla Claire, who plays Tom’s romantic interest Anne Trulove, said it can sound deceptively simple, especially in flowing, legato arias.  

“It’s like a Classical piece of music, but really shaken up and put upside down," Claire said. "There are much trickier rhythms, much bigger intervals, so it’s extra challenging to keep a legato line when you’re jumping around so much.”

The moral of the story is simple, said Shrader, but his character Tom Rakewell doesn’t grasp it until it’s too late.

"You don’t need money. You don’t need things. You don’t need even status. You just need to be in love or to be loved and to be happy. It’s so simple, and we tell that in a really complicated, convoluted and twisting tale."

The Pittsburgh Opera's production of The Rake's Progress runs for four English language performances at the Benedum Center in downtown Pittsburgh from April 30 through May 8; more information can be found at pittsburghopera.org.