Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 42nd season started last month with a production of “Madame Butterfly” and runs through the end of June. This Sunday, it adds the American premiere of famed minimalist composer Phillip Glass’ opera “The Trial.”
Glass, working alongside playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (known for “Atonement”), adapted Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, also titled “The Trial,” for the stage. The production recently came off a sold-out run at London’s Royal Opera House.
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, two principals with the production joined contributor Steve Potter to discuss the opera and their take on the chamber-style production, which has only eight cast members singing various roles.
Susannah Biller is a soprano who sings the role of Fräulein Bürstner and Leni. Theo Hoffman is a baritone who singes the role of Joseph K, the main character in the opera. They say Kafka’s novel came about during a boiling point in Europe in the early 20th century.
“The monarchy and class ruling system would soon be crumbled and replaced with this bureaucratic, industrial system,” said Hoffman. “There’s this deep unrest in the writing and the characters.”
Hoffman’s character, Joseph K, is a normal, upstanding guy.
“He wakes up, goes to work, does what he is told,” Hoffman said. “Then, on his 30th birthday, he’s arrested. He’s told he is guilty but they won’t tell him what he is arrested for. He spends the next year trying to figure out what he did and how to get acquitted.”
The reason why Joseph K is arrested is never explained, which might be frustrating for some, but Hoffman said audiences should trust the genius of Kafka and Glass, working in concert.
“One minute, you are baffled and waiting for either of them to get the point and then you feel an emotion you didn’t realize you were going to feel,” Hoffman said. “It happens differently each time you listen to each person’s work. You let these masters of their respective trades take you on a journey and if you go on the journey with them it is really rewarding emotionally and theatrically.”
The opera maintains the same kind of absurdity as Kafka’s other works, like “The Metamorphosis,” but ultimately ends in tragedy without an answer for Joseph K.
Biller, who plays two of the absurd characters Joseph K meets on his search for justice, said that such humor melded with heartbreak really gets the audience to think: “Could this happen in the future? Could this happen at some point in time? Is there ever going to be a moment in time where we ask these questions and we don’t get any answers?”
Hoffmann said the work was incredibly forward-thinking for its time, foreshadowing the Holocaust, McCarthyism and other moments where people just “did what they were told.”
“It is spookily ingenious and forward-thinking,” Hoffman said.
Biller hopes audience members will pause after seeing the performance.
“Great music and literature cause you to stop and ask questions,” Biller said.
If you go …
What: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Presents "The Trial" by Philip Glass
When: June 4 at 7 p.m.; June 8, 17, 21 and 23 at 8 p.m.; June 10 at 1 p.m.
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis, MO 63119
What: Sing for Siteman
When: June 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Haertter Hall, Performing Arts Center, John Burroughs School
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