Byline: Eileen Daspin
Stewart Wallace, composer of the controversial new opera “Harvey Milk,” throws his hands up in frustration in the middle of an interview.
What bothers Wallace is that music critics have accused him of including Seventies disco, Broadway tunes and hints of Puccini, Copland and Barber in “Harvey Milk,” a work based on the life and murder of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official. One critic even called Wallace’s music a cross between Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass. “There’s no disco music!” protests Wallace, whose opera — with a libretto by Michael Korie — will be presented at Florence Gould Hall on East 59th Street in New York as part of the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series on March 19 and 20 (just excerpts), and given a full production at the New York City Opera in April.
“The opera takes place over a long period of time, and I wanted to give emotional and aural cues. When Milk arrives on Castro Street, the music is based over a funk back beat. Some ignorant critics chose to call that disco.”
The 34-year-old composer retreats only slightly on the Bernstein and Glass comparison. “They [his music and Bernstein’s] are related to the same idea,” he says. “Bernstein related to American sounds. His music is very rhythmic. The music of minimalism [Glass] comes out of rock ‘n’ roll, and I grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll, but I don’t think Philip would think that my music sounds like his music. The score is built around rhythmic ideals. It gets in your body before it gets in your head. I’m a composer who writes from the hips.”
Milk, a Goldwater Republican turned radical, was San Francisco city supervisor when he was murdered along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978. The trial received international coverage when the killer, former city supervisor Dan White, claimed his judgment had been impaired by eating too much junk food — the famous “Twinkie defense.”
The double murder also accelerated the political career of Dianne Feinstein, who was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the time and who assumed the mayorship of San Francisco. Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator, was invited to see “Harvey Milk” when it debuted in Houston, but didn’t show. Nevertheless, Wallace says she has a scene-stealing moment on stage. “When [her character] appears in her red dress, sitting on her desk with two phones in her hands like the goddess of politics, it gets a lot of laughs.”